How Belgium became No. 1 in the world: Lukaku, De Bruyne and Martinez tell their

The Grand Place was packed, a sea of red shirts. The Belgium squad waved down from the balcony of Brussels’ City Hall, celebrating their third-place finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It felt like the entire country (population: 11 million) was packed into the square. “It’s a difficult environment, sometimes, but the moment we did something like that, everybody’s together,” Kevin de Bruyne told ESPN.

The Belgium squad was packed with global superstars such as De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois. They’d gone further in a World Cup than any other group from that small, European country before them. “Belgium is a very small nation in terms of numbers, but a huge nation in terms of possibilities,” manager Roberto Martinez told ESPN. “A nation with three languages, diverse backgrounds… and everyone came together for one goal: to win a football match, and that is a beautiful story.”

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They call this group the “Golden Generation” — a group of players who would walk into most first teams in the world, with Europe’s top leagues all represented. Dries Mertens plays for Napoli, and Lukaku at Inter Milan in Serie A. Toby Alderweireld, De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans and Michy Batshuayi are in the Premier League. Axel Witsel, Thorgan Hazard and Thomas Meunier are at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, with Koen Casteels at Wolfsburg. Over in Spain, Yannick Carrasco and captain Eden Hazard are in La Liga with Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid respectively. Then there’s Jan Vertonghen, who left Spurs in the summer for Benfica.

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“We know we are a talented team, but we don’t call ourselves the golden generation,” Lukaku told ESPN. “We don’t give ourselves a name, but we know we’re a talented bunch of players. Obviously being young, I always had the ambition to play for Belgium at the highest level, on the biggest stages. To achieve that is great, but when we realised we could really win something, you start chasing that dream.”

Next summer brings the delayed European Championships. If Belgium win, it’ll be one of the sport’s great success stories given that 10 years ago, they were ranked 70th in the world. By June 2021, Belgium will compete as one of the favourites, sitting at the top of the FIFA rankings. But even in those dark times in 2010, behind the scenes Belgium were developing world-class talent they hoped would deliver a major trophy. This talent has come together to guide Belgium to the top of the world game.

And yet, the Belgian national team are adamant they are here to stay as a global footballing superpower. This is how Belgium reached the top.

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