Brazil were my pre-tournament favourites (a choice more of heart than head) but it's time to switch horses. Here's why I want Belgium to win in Kazan -- and possibly go all the way.
In keeping with the unpredictable nature of this World Cup, why not a first-time winner? Four of the last eight have won the World Cup previously, leaving Belgium, Croatia, Russia and Sweden. Looking for a worthy winner among those four, and all the qualitative issues that involves, I'd go no further than Belgium and Croatia, with Belgium getting the edge because of their longer run in football's top tier, including being the No. 1 ranked team not so long ago.
There is an anecdote related by Grant Wahl about Roberto Martinez in his book Football 2.0 that shows the latter's trademark attention to detail -- and how it can resolve potentially tricky situations. Some years ago Martinez -- a football obsessive who watches hundreds of hours of match footage a week -- found that he and his wife were spending too much time in different rooms watching different TV channels. His solution: Buying an L-shaped sofa for their sitting room and fixing TV screens on perpendicular walls so they could at least be in the same room. His wife had the volume up, his was on silent but it was a small price to pay.
Martinez is in a peculiar situation this World Cup; though Belgium's football has been eye-catching and they have earned their reputation as slight favourites against Brazil, they have been criticized for that last-gasp 3-2 win over Japan -- a match that many neutrals wish Japan had won. He's not been spared criticism back home either, for various reasons -- one of which is that he is not the big name who should have been entrusted with this golden generation of the country's footballers. Perhaps most unkind is the charge that he talks a good game more than he actually delivers one. Friday may change that forever.
A couple of weeks ago I saw Belgium demolish Tunisia 5-2 at the Spartak Stadium; I was in a lower-level seat, about five rows up from ground level, and it gave me a perspective on body movement that neither television nor the usual press box seat can give. The next evening I saw the Bolshoi ballet and, while it is admittedly a massive leap of imagination to link the two, there was some similarity. First, the beauty and grace of Eden Hazard riding tackles -- smooth and sweet, like a single clear note off a finely-tuned violin. Or how Kevin de Bruyne uses the space on a football pitch to pull strings and choreograph the play. I'd watched their first match, too, against Panama and while the goals were good -- especially Dries Mertens's volley -- the overall performance was patchy. But against Tunisia it was the full package. The defence is suspect, sure, and there are question marks over Belgium's most effective formation but there are no doubts over the quality of their creative and attacking players.
And when the stars have not delivered, as against Japan, or are missing, as against England, it's the bit players who have done the job. Adnan Januzaj showed signs of the exciting prodigy he was at Manchester United while scoring the winner against England. And with Belgium 2-1 down against Japan and a little more than 15 remaining, the much-maligned Marouane Fellaini levelled the scores before Nacer Chadli scored the winner with almost the last kick of the match. Fellaini is among the most ridiculed or reviled players in top-level football today but he does his work, elbows and all, with minimum fuss.
Or the multiculture. Plenty has already been written about the ethnic diversity in the Belgium team, and many others were there before them -- France won the World Cup with a rainbow team, as did Germany, and Holland won the Euros with Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard. Sweden and Switzerland's teams have also reflected the country's new ethnic diversity, while Portugal have long fielded players from their former African colonies. Brazil in fact are the oldest, and best, example of various cultures blending to create a winning side. So Belgium are not unique.
But in the current anti-immigrant climate prevalent throughout the first world, any embracing of diversity is to be welcomed. And while it may not reflect the politics or even some individual views in Belgium, the football is overtly and proudly multi-ethnic.
Romelu Lukaku says as much in his superb autobiographical piece in The Players' Tribune. "I'll start a sentence in French, and finish it in Dutch, and I'll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighbourhood we're in. I'm Belgian. We're all Belgian. That's what makes this country cool, right?"
In his book, Wahl quotes Martinez as saying the diversity was one key factor in him accepting the Belgian job offer. He points to three Belgian players he coached at Everton -- Lukaku, Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas, each with a completely different ethnic background. "That was always in the back of my mind, trying to understand how so much diverse talent comes together in the same nation."
Whatever happens against Brazil, this Belgium team includes a clutch of footballers who are key players for their clubs. And that hasn't happened by accident, it's the result of a plan by the national association to identify and groom talent. As with Germany, it took a footballing disaster to prompt a reboot -- in Belgium's case the Euro 2000, which they co-hosted with the Netherlands and where they were dumped out in the first round. They set in place a 10-year plan to, basically, evolve a national playing style that would be implemented across the country at all levels, school upwards. The relatively relaxed immigration laws of that time -- citizenship after two years -- allowed for a larger ethnic pool to choose from and the results started showing. In 2007 Belgium reached the semi-finals of the European Under-17 tournament, a year later finished fourth at the 2008 Olympics. The current crop of stars was already making its presence felt and over the next five years plotted the country's climb up the FIFA rankings, culminating in becoming Team of the Year in 2015.
Getting into the World Cup semi-finals (or beyond) for the first time ever this year would take the plan to its logical conclusion.
That journey starts in Kazan on Friday evening.