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World Cup 2014--national team generations, part VI

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil a number of National Teams will be playing what may be the final major tournament with their current generation of stars. For Spain, Germany, and Argentina at the top level, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Portugal, Italy, and France, at the next level down, and Ecuador, Croatia, Ivory Coast, Belgium, England, and USA, at the third level, this summer may be their teams’ last hurrahs. In an eight-part series, we analyze what the cup means to these teams and what their aspirations and chances may be next summer. Today we review England and Belgium.

Rooney
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

England

FIFA Rank: 11, Coach: Roy Hodgson, Group D: with Uruguay, Italy and Costa Rica. Odds of winning cup: 28-1 (ahead of Portugal and Chile, for instance).

FIFA World Cup history: appearances (12): Champions at home in 1966, quarterfinalists in 1954, 1962, 1970, 1986, 2002, and 2006, eliminated in the Round of 16 in 1982, 1998, and 2010, and eliminated at the group stage in 1950 and 1958.

How they qualified for 2014: First in UEFA Group H with 22 points, 6 wins, 4 draws, no losses, 31 goals in favor and 4 goals against.

England is that rarest of football nations—the cradle of the modern game yet among the poorest exemplars of the sport at its peak; able to boast among the top attendance numbers of any nation yet unable to develop talent in commensurate numbers; perennially ranked among FIFA’s top 25 national teams yet unable to get past the quarterfinals but once in the World Cup and twice in the European Championships, dating back to 1960—54 years.

England’s sole exceptional performance was unfortunate: a World Cup win at home, in a tournament that was so violent FIFA rules were forever changed, and with a final result so debatable that the West German government offered a reward to anyone who could prove England’s “crossbar-goal” actually crossed the line. Two scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Engineering subsequently studied the game video and concluded that “…the ball [is] still 6cm from being a goal.” Yet, no one has claimed that handsome reward.

Over the past several decades, as compared to players coming from Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, France, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, Belgium, and Turkey, for example, England’s players are rarely in demand outside the island nation and thus rarely exported. Conversely, foreigners manage their top teams and feature as the major stars on them. This time around the English fans are hoping their national team, those few, top Premier League players not born abroad, will have a breakout tournament. Yet, most of their fans know it will probably not happen, again.

England, in 2014, has a waning generation of stars, most of whom have rarely lived up to their nation’s hopes. Coach Roy Hodgson has been trying to meld his aging stars with his newcomers but has yet to find the right mix. He has relied on three starters who will be in their thirties this summer, four starters who will be into their thirties by next World Cup, and only four who will be at their peak come Russia 2018. He has used about forty players over the past several friendlies in an attempt to find the roster’s formula and placate the fans and pundits alike.

The nearly all-British-club England squad counts with Manchester City’s Joe Hart in goal, Liverpool’s Glen Johnson, Chelsea’s Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill among the defense, Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, Manchester City’s James Milner, Chelsea’s Frank Lampard, and Manchester United’s Michael Carrick at midfield, and Toronto FC’s Jermaine Defoe, and Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney as strikers.

This team has played three friendlies, all at home, since qualifying for the cup—a 0-2 loss to Chile, a 0-1 loss to Germany and a 1-0 win over Denmark. They have scheduled three more before the cup begins, against Peru at home and against Ecuador and Honduras in Miami.

The Three Lions will be staying in Rio de Janeiro and will fly 4 hours north to Manaus, 35 minutes west to Sao Paulo, and 50 minutes north to Belo Horizonte for their three group games.

Hodgson has been at pains to both temper expectations and keep hope alive. The ironic English refrain of the weather playing a detrimental part in any tourney played outside the comfort of Premiership cities, and a stark assessment of his team’s potential, have been duly balanced with a hopeful and often-repeated closing.

Earlier this month Hodgson spoke with Sky Sports and said: "We are doing everything possible to prepare the players in order to deal with these [weather] conditions. It's not the best situation for us. But is England defeated before we start the World Cup? The game[s] have to be played, and then we shall see. We will be brave, we will believe in ourselves and we will risk defeat."

At Brazil, in Group D, England will have overwhelming competition. Italy and Uruguay are the favored teams to move on and an in-form Costa Rica will not be a pushover.

Prediction: England will play to their potential and may win a game, but they will be outclassed by their tougher rivals and not make it out of the group stage. This generation will live up to what should be realistic expectations, but their fans, ever hopeful, will go unrewarded.

Belgium

FIFA Rank: 12, Coach: Marc Wilmots, Group H: with Algeria, South Korea and Russia. Odds of winning cup: 14-1 (ahead of Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and Colombia, for instance).

FIFA World Cup history: appearances (11): Fourth place in 1986, Round of 16 in 1982, 1990, 1994, and 2002, and eliminated at the group stage in 1930, 1934, 1938, 1954, 1970, and 1998.

How they qualified for 2014: First in UEFA Group A with 26 points, 8 wins, 2 draws, no losses, 18 goals in favor and 4 goals against. Croatia, who came in second in the group, nine points behind Belgium, made it to Brazil in a playoff.

The Belgians have a long history of participating in World Cups, and they are routinely ranked by FIFA as a top 25 team, yet they rarely make it past the second round in the quadrennial tourney. In their one semifinals appearance they arrived via being third in their Group, then beating the USSR by one goal in extra time in the Round of 16, and beating Spain by penalties in the quarterfinals, before Argentina and Diego Maradona did them in, 2-0, en route to the Argentines' storied championship. But, expectations are high for this edition of the Red Devils, led by their ex-standout striker and 2002 World Cup squad captain, Marc Wilmonts.

Belgium are among the most discussed teams to have qualified to the 2014 World Cup. They are participating for the first time since 2002 and were impressive in their qualifying rounds. The team is stocked with young talent and most European pundits have tapped the Red Devils to advance, as dark horses, into the latter stages of the cup.

The Belgians have Atletico Madrid’s standout goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, and Tottenhan Hotspur’s Jan Vertonghen at defense, Club Brugge’s Timmy Simons, Zenit St. Petersburg’s Axel Witsel, Manchester United’s Marouane Felliaini, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Everton’s Kevin Mirallas, and Tottenham’s Mousa Dembele, at midfield, and Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku as strikers.

The team has two players in their thirties and everyone else is under 29 years of age—with four 27-29 year olds and the remaining 17 under the age of 26. This is a team of the future taking its first steps as a competitor today. One outstanding player who has barely spent time on the senior team and may be thought of as too young (at 19) and inexperienced to even make the trip, is Adnan Januzaj.

The team has played three friendlies at home since qualifying for Brazil—a 0-2 loss to Colombia (with Radamel Falcao), a 2-3 loss to Japan, and a 2-2 tie with the Ivory Coast. Each game has showcased their brilliant offense, their fantastic goalkeeper, and their vast inexperience. That will be the blend that will take them forward and ultimately stop them short.

This summer in Brazil, Belgium will be staying outside Sao Paulo, in Mogi das Cruzes and have an easy travel schedule. They will take hour long flights to Bello Horizonte, and Rio de Janeiro, and then a short bus ride to Sao Paulo proper for thier Group Games. Thereafter they will travel 2.5 hours to Salvador, probably to play Portugal.

Last month, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was interviewd on the eve of his team’s match against Ivory Coast and was asked about Belgium’s chances at the World Cup, he said:

“Everybody says that we have a great generation, that we can achieve someting big. We [the players] try to stay down to earth. We know we are a young team, a very good team yes, but a young team. We will try to go through the first stage. If we can go to the quarters or the semis, it would be exceptional for our generation.”

Belgium is a seeded team for the 2014 World Cup and have a relatively easy group. They should beat Algeria and South Korea and have some competition against Russia. But they are the class of their group.

Prediction: Belgium will come out on top of their group, certifying the pundits’ perceptions that they are a power to be reckoned with, albeit with an easy group. But their next opponent will be the second placed team of Group G, and with Germany and Portugal playing in that group the Belgians will meet a far superior team in the Round of 16. For this generation, that second round elimination will be no shame, it will be the experience that tempers them for the Euro 2016 and Russia 2018, they still have ahead.