Time to shine for Belgium, who have never won a World Cup knockout game in 90 minutes

Time to shine for Belgium, who have never won a World Cup knockout game in 90 minutes

Belgium's appearance in Russia is their thirteenth at a World Cup tournament.

Chris Lincoln

Romelu Lukaku; Marc Wilmots; Jan Ceulemans; Enzo Scifo; Eden Hazard; Kevin De Bruyne; Michel Preud'homme; Franky van der Elst. Belgium have never been short of global talents in their World Cup squads. Yet, despite reaching the semi-finals in 1986, they are still searching for their first victory in a World Cup knockout game during normal time.

A slow start

In eleven knockout matches, the Red Devils have drawn five and lost six, contributing to 'golden generations' of talented players never reaching their full potential.

When the format of the competition was purely knockout football, Belgium lost their only games of the 1934 and 1938 World Cups. Yet, even when the tournament reverted back to group stages, Belgium could not break out of their group in 1954 and 1970, failing to qualify in between, before finally making an impact on the global stage in the 1980s.

Narrow victories over Argentina and El Salvador helped them progress to the second group stage in Spain 1982 before losses to Poland and Soviet Union ensured they progressed no further. However, it was Belgium's time to shine at the following World Cup in Mexico.

With Scifo and Ceulemans leading the line, Belgium edged out of their group behind Mexico and Paraguay. The second-round saw them produce one of their greatest World Cup results, defeating Soviet Union, the favourites to win the competition, but only after extra-time to secure their first win in a World Cup knockout game. They then defeated Spain on penalties, only for a Diego Maradona double to put them out of the semi-finals before a 4-2 defeat to France in the Third Place Play-Off.

David Platt and all that

Scifo was named the Best Young Player in the competition and much was expected of him and Ceulemans in 1990. Victories against South Korea and Uruguay helped them progress before a memorable second-round contest against England. Scifo, who was to be named second best player at the tournament, hit the woodwork twice only for Belgium to succumb to a David Platt wondergoal in the final minute of extra-time.

1994 saw Belgium edge through the group stage before another defeat in the second-round, regarded as controversial in many quarters. The Red Devils lost 3-2 as a Rudi Voller-inspired Germany progressed but only after strong Belgian appeals for a penalty were waved away by the referee who was sent home after the game.

Three successive draws in 1998 ended their tournament early before Wilmots impressed in 2002. The striker scored in all three group games, only for Brazil's Ronaldo and Rivaldo to put Belgium out of the competition in the second-round again.

A dry twelve years without World Cup qualification was put to bed four years ago when the new 'golden generation' announced themselves on the global stage. Yet Belgium failed to score inside the first 70 minutes of their three group games before progressing. The second-round saw them dominate against USA, only for Tim Howard to keep them out until extra-time. Yet a Gonzalo Higuain strike ended Belgium's tournament in the quarter-finals - their last World Cup knockout game.


Goals galore

Fast-forward a World Cup cycle and Belgium are preparing for the knockout stages again. 84 years of misery have been and gone and now many fans across the globe are predicting Belgium to be serious challengers to win the competition, particularly with Argentina, Germany and Spain all dumped out of the tournament in the early stages.

Belgium have never progressed into the latter stages with as much momentum. Only once have they won all three group games and the nine goals they have scored in those matches are more than they have produced in the first trio of fixtures at any World Cup. They has only won 14 and scored 50 in their previous 41 games at the tournament.

However, those results must be put into perspective. Belgium netted three against Panama who conceded the most goals in the group stages of any of the 32 teams. They impressed with five against Tunisia but England could have easily done the same if they had taken their chances against the Africans. A 1-0 victory against England was also a positive result, although both sides included a number of changes and the English defence were only unlocked by an Adnan Januzaj screamer - a goal that put Belgium on what looks to be the more challenging side of the knockout draw.

Japan have potential to enforce more misery but Belgium have the talent to go all the way

Yet, as this tournament has proved so often in the first fortnight, no match is a given at the World Cup. Japan are Belgium's last sixteen opponents and may not be regarded as one of the best teams on the planet but they have several global talents in Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe.

That said, Belgium have players in peak form. Lukaku has scored four goals in two games, already more than any Belgium player has netted in an entire tournament. With captain Eden Hazard pulling the strings in midfield, supported by the Premier League's second best player last season, Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium ooze class going forward. They scored a European record of 43 goals in qualification.

All too often, Belgium fans have been left disappointed at major competitions. However, with Thibaut Courtois aged 26, Toby Alderweireld 29, Jan Vertonghen 31, De Bruyne 27, Lukaku 25, Hazard 27 and Dries Mertens 31, the spine of the team are currently enjoying the peaks of their careers. Belgium will never have a better chance to not only win a World Cup knockout game in 90 minutes but also the entire tournament.