Belgian Soccer Gaining On Belgian Beer

Forget waffles, forget chocolate—Belgium’s greatest contribution to world culture is beer. They do it better than anyone else, and it’s not even close.

You could limit yourself to Belgian beer from here on out and live the rest of your days a happy, satisfied camper, ranging from Chimay Grande Reserve to Tripel Karmeliet to Orval Trappist Ale or any of the other outstanding concoctions from the more than 178 breweries in the country.

They also play soccer in Belgium, but their brand of the sport has traditionally trailed the aforementioned articles—along with Brussels sprouts, frites, and being the capital of the European Union—on the list of things the multilingual country is known for, by a good margin.

But that—as many have noted recently—is changing: Belgian soccer is in the midst of a renaissance, so much so that the current wave of players—which routed the Netherlands 4-2 last month, and begins 2014 World Cup qualifying on Friday against Wales—is denying that they are a ‘golden generation.’

We suppose that remains to be seen, but this is an exceptional group from a country that hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 2002 or a European Championship since 2000 (Belgium did finish fourth at the 2008 Olympics).

As Our Man at the Valley said recently, Belgium probably has a more skilled contingent in the English Premier League than England does. Let’s take a look:

Goalkeeper: Simon Mignolet, 24, Sunderland. Recently established himself as first-choice keeper for both club and country. Ten international caps.

Defenders: Vincent Kompany, 26, Manchester City; Thomas Vermaelen, 26, Arsenal; Jan Vertonghen, 25, Tottenham. Kompany and Vermaelen both captain their teams, and Kompany has been called the best defender in the world after leading City to the Premier League title last season. Vertonghen has looked like a quality addition in North London.

Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini, 24, Everton; Moussa Dembele, 25, Tottenham; Eden Hazard, 21, Chelsea. Fellaini has been a mainstay at Everton for several seasons now, and he was deadly in the club’s season-opening win over Manchester United. Tottenham jumped to land Dembele for $24 million, and Hazard, with a price tag of more than double that, has sparkled so far for Chelsea this season.

ForwardsKevin Mirallas, 24, Everton; Romelu Lukaku, 19, West Brom (on loan from Chelsea) Mirallas, who can play as a winger or a striker, bagged two goals and two assists in his first start for Everton (in a League Cup match), and Lukaku, who is built like an NFL linebacker, has a goal in two appearances for West Brom this season.

That’s an impressive group, and it doesn’t even include rising goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, 20, on loan to Atletico Madrid from Chelsea, or promising attacker Kevin De Bruyne, 21, on loan to Werder Bremen, also from Chelsea (Roman Abramovich and Co. are clearly onto this Belgian thing).

Better than England’s crop in the Premier League? You bet.

The Red Devils are grouped with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia, and Wales in World Cup qualifying. If they can advance—and they should—they’ll be an interesting side to watch at Brazil 2014.