Marouane Fellaini was delighted that Belgium qualified for the World Cup finals this week. I do not blame him – this is their first time since 2002.
But when you look at their players, are you surprised?
Fellaini paid tribute to the Premier League for helping the Belgium players. I can see his point, since many of the Belgians have improved playing in England. But they have so much talent, they would have all ended up playing in a top league. That is down to them.
Belgium is not an exciting country, but Belgium’s national football team excites me. So many players have come through at the same time. I counted 15 quality players yesterday, leaving no shortages in any position. I have heard that more are on the way.
I do not think Belgium will win the World Cup next year. They are too young, too inexperienced. Success comes gradually. At Manchester United, we edged toward the treble in 1999. Bayern Munich did not just become the best team in Europe; they have been improving for four years. Same with Atletico Madrid.
Belgium are improving and have risen to fifth in the world ranking. They were 30th a year ago and 68th four years ago, but they won eight and drew two of their 10 World Cup qualifiers. They went to Serbia and won 3-0, to Croatia and won 2-1 – and that was the only goal they conceded in five away games, all of which were won.
Look at their players. Fellaini, Thibaut Courtois, Daniel van Buyten, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Mousa Dembele, Nacer Chadli, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Christian Benteke, who set the Premier League on fire last season with his goals. Few had heard of him before, when he played for Genk.
Benteke excelled for Aston Villa, a bang-average team. Imagine how good he would be in one of the top outfits.
I am not sure what Fellaini’s best position is. I have seen him play off the front, as a centre-half and a holding midfielder. It is tougher for him at Manchester United, because he cost a lot and expectations are high.
Vertonghen, the Belgium captain, was a good purchase by Tottenham Hotspur, who got him ahead of Arsenal. He is a centre-half who is decent on the ball. He likes to take the ball out from the back, to get involved, to do one-twos. I like him.
Hazard will be one of the best players in the world if he fulfils his potential. He has great pace, he scores, he goes past players. It is little wonder so many teams were prepared to pay so much for him last year.
Dembele was one of the best players I saw at Old Trafford last season. Good on the ball, attack minded, looks to burst forward from midfield and take players on, and strong as an ox. The only surprise is that he is not featuring so much at Tottenham, but then they have bought a number of new players.
Kompany gets better and better. He is dominant, he leads by example, he has already been the captain of a team that won the Premier League. Manchester City actually look vulnerable without him. If I was still playing, I would love to go up against him.
When I started to see this Belgium team emerge, I was worried they needed a goalkeeper. They have one in Courtois, 21, who is thriving at Atletico Madrid while on loan from Chelsea and will be around for a long time. He is commanding, which makes it easier for a back four, and good with his feet.
Witsel’s move to Russia surprised me, as I thought a Premier League team would grab him when he was doing well at Benfica.
Van Buyten, 35, is the veteran of the team. I bet he cannot believe the transformation since he started. He is no longer first choice for Bayern Munich, but what a player he is to have around, hugely experienced and respected.
De Bruyne was good enough to earn a move to Chelsea.
Another Kevin, Mirallas, is a tricky winger who loves to attack his full-back, take them on and get a shot or cross on. What’s not to like?
I have said before in this column how much I like Lukaku, the third Belgian on loan from Chelsea. He scored 17 Premier League goals at West Bromwich Albion last season, an incredible achievement for a mid-table side. He has blistering pace and is strong and prolific.
Belgium are young, fresh and exciting. Opponents do not fully know what to expect and I think they will do well – as they have done in qualifying.
I do not think Belgium will win the World Cup, but they are my tip for the 2016 European Championship in France. And I will be watching them closely in Brazil.
Andrew Cole’s column is written with the assistance of European correspondent Andy Mitten.