MOSCOW (AP) — Belgium is the team of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.
De Rode Duivels, as the Red Devils are known, have been playing for 114 years and remain in search of their first major title.
A polyglot known for waffles, chocolate and beer, the nation of 11 million hopes for soccer to join the national identity, boosted by a golden generation that includes Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bryune.
Belief is growing. Philippe, King of the Belgians, was on hand wearing a bright red tie and team scarf.
“Belgium is a small country, you know? So we’re very happy that we have this kind of talent,” defender Toby Alderweireld said after Saturday’s 5-2 rout of Tunisia all but clinched a round-of-16 World Cup berth. “Hopefully we can do something special.”
Lukaku tied Cristiano Ronaldo for the tournament lead with four goals, becoming the first with consecutive two-goal games in the World Cup since Diego Maradona and Gary Lineker in 1986. Hazard also scored twice , and Michy Batshuayi added a 90th-minute goal after failing to convert a trio of prime chances.
Belgium opened with a 3-0 victory over Panama and has an 8-2 goal difference. Ranked third in the world behind defending champion Germany and Brazil, the Red Devils have become a chic choice to join the exclusive club of eight World Cup winners: Brazil (five), Germany and Italy (four), Argentina and Uruguay (two), and England, France and Spain (one).
“Belgium was not the favorite because of the history of the country — and especially the history of the other countries,” said former Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf, now a Fox analyst. “They’re growing. Also, they’re playing with important team spirit. So for me, it’s not really a big surprise what they’re doing at the moment.”
Training is conducted in English under Spanish coach Roberto Martinez, who spent a decade managing in England. Postgame interviews sound like a corridor at European Union headquarters in Brussels, with players alternating among English, French, Dutch and Spanish. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has picked up a Scouse accent after five seasons with Liverpool.
Seventeen of the 23 players were on Champions League clubs last season, a glamorous group that includes Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.
“That gives them the confidence and the experience to play at the highest level. That is what a World Cup is about,” Mignolet said. “For us, it’s now the third tournament in a row where we play, which gives you the experience, so nobody’s really fussed about the occasion anymore. Maybe the two tournaments were a bit different where we arrived and we were thinking about what was going to happen. Everything was new.”
After completing the group stage against England on Thursday, Belgium would face Colombia, Poland, Senegal or Japan in the second round, and then could have a possible quarterfinal against Germany, Brazil or Mexico.
Since losing their first match under Martinez to Spain two years ago, Belgium is unbeaten in 21 games (16 wins) and has outscored opponents 72-17 during the run. But while outscoring Panama and Tunisia by 8-2, the defense and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois looked like they could be exploited by better opposition.
“Today what I saw is a team that it was prepared to suffer, prepared to work for each other, and we look well-balanced in that respect,” Martinez said. “So when you’ve got that, then the individuals can show their talent.”
Lukaku has 15 goals in his last 10 international matches but left in the 59th minute after injuring an ankle ligament. Hazard came off nine minutes later with a calf problem, and forward Dries Mertens came out in the 86th after an ankle issue.
Belgium came closest to a title at the 1980 European Championship, losing 2-1 to a German team that got a pair of goals from Horst Hrubesch. It has reached semifinals twice at major events, losing 2-1 to West Germany at the 1972 Euros and to Maradona’s Argentina at the 1986 World Cup.
After missing two straight World Cups, the Red Devils returned four years ago, beat the U.S. in extra time in the round of 16, then lost to Argentina in the quarters. At the 2016 Euros, they wasted an early lead in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Wales.
Given the past and the sound and fury that would follow any misstep, Martinez wants to manage expectations.
“To be a favorite in a World Cup, you need to have the know-how of winning a World Cup,” he said. “The World Cup is something that probably gives you an advantage psychologically when you’ve won it before.”
More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup