BELGIAN DELIGHT

While there is obviously no question about the club that we support during the course of the Premier League season, choosing a team to back during the World Cup is a bit more of a nebulous affair for South-East Asian football fans.

Seeing as none of the national teams in this part of the world are likely to qualify for a Mundial anytime soon, it is a perfectly acceptable practice for us to pick another country to support (and wager on) during the course of the tournament.

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And while being a fan of a club is generally a lifelong commitment, it is also acceptable for us to switch allegiances to other national teams from tournament to tournament.

Of course, there are committed fans of Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy and England who will always back their favourite side at every tournament but for the majority of us (who have no particular emotional attachment with the national team of another country), the choice of the team that we support is pretty open.

That choice can come down to a number of factors and for many Chelsea fans here, it may hinge on the Blues players who are turning out for a particular nation. Thus, many of us will be keeping a close eye next summer on David Luiz, Oscar, Ramires and possibly Willian in the Brazil squad, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres and Cesar Azpilicueta for Spain, and Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill for England (if they manage to qualify).

But while those three teams will get a lot of support from Chelsea fans, there is another side that will be of great interest to Blues supporters next summer – Belgium.

It seems strange to think that just three years ago, we had never had a Belgian player on the books at Stamford Bridge in over a century of the club’s existence. But since the signing of goalkeeper Thibault Courtois and forward Romelu Lukaku in the summer of 2011, we have been stockpiling the best of that country’s footballing talent, bringing in Kevin De Bruyne and the Hazard brothers, Eden and Thorgan.

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And with the Red Devils now on the brink of qualification for the World Cup after their dismantling of Scotland in Glasgow last weekend, it is possible that all five could feature for Marc Wilmot’s side in Brazil next year.

Growing up in the 1980s, I had a bit of an affinity for the Belgians especially during their run to the 1986 World Cup semi-finals. They didn’t play the prettiest of football but they showed plenty of heart and fighting spirit to stun the highly-fancied Soviet Union 4-3 in the Round of 16 before ousting Spain on penalties in an epic quarter-final that is somewhat forgotten as it came on the same day as Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal.

That was the high watermark of the team that qualified for six consecutive World Cups although they could have gone further at the tournament in 1990 if not for David Platt’s last-minute strike for England in Bologna.

But since their appearance in Japan in 2002, the fortunes of Belgian football have slipped considerably. They have failed to qualify for a major tournament for over a decade and fell to their lowest world ranking position of 71st in June 2007.

However, thanks to the patience and determination of the Belgian Football Association and technical director Michel Sablon, who put in place a blueprint for the development of the sport in the country as long ago as 2002, they have climbed steadily back and now sit at their highest FIFA ranking of 10th.

A point against Croatia next month will seal their return to the World Cup stage and apart from experience, they look to have all the pieces in place for a good showing in Brazil with a strong squad that plays an attractive brand of technical football that bears scant resemblance to the counter-attacking side of 1986.

In addition to the five aforementioned Chelsea men, there is no shortage of English-based talent with a defence marshalled by Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, a midfield general in Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and a prolific scorer in Christian Benteke of Aston Villa.

The good news for Chelsea fans is that many of the team’s most talented youngsters – the outstanding Courtois, De Bruyne, Lukaku and Eden Hazard – now belong to the Blues, with all of them still yet to celebrate their 23rd birthdays.

And you can also add into the mix midfielder Thorgan Hazard, currently on loan at Belgian side Zulte Waregem, and the Musonda brothers – Lamisha, Tyka and Charly Jr – who are part of the Chelsea Academy set-up.

Give them a bit more time to develop and Chelsea could have soon have more world-class talent that can hopefully bring success to the Blues and (Belgium’s) Red Devils for years to come.

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