Huysegems backing Belgium

Former Belgian international Stein Huysegems believes the 'Red Devils' have a chance to win their first World Cup - providing they get the luck of the draw.

Former Belgian international Stein Huysegems believes the 'Red Devils' have a chance to win their first World Cup - providing they get the luck of the draw.

It's been four years since the Wellington Phoenix striker won the last of his 15 caps, but Huysegems remains closely connected with the Belgian game, and is as excited as many pundits about the potential of a Belgium team which boasts a once-in-a-lifetime collection of some of Europe's leading stars. Belgium breezed through the qualifiers for next year's World Cup, and now a host of experts are tipping them to be the dark horses in Brazil.

"It's an unbelievable team really," says Huysegems. "I played with a lot of these guys four, five, years ago, when they were 18, 19 years old, and you could see they had a lot of talent.

"Okay, they had to get used to international football, but now a lot of these boys are playing in England, Spain and in Italy, at all the big clubs. That's why they have the experience now, that's why they are performing so well at the moment. I think they've just won eight in a row. It's unbelievable what they are doing."

Belgium may be one of Europe's smaller nations, but it does have a football pedigree. After finishing as runners-up in the 1980 European Championships, a squad which included iconic names such as Franky Vercauteren, Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans, Marc Wilmots, Luc Nilis, Michel Preud'homme and the incomparable Enzi Scifo went on to make the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup in an era when club sides Anderlecht and Club Brugge were also competitive on the international stage.

But after six successive World Cup appearances, Belgium failed to qualify for the 2006 tournament in Germany - leading to a bottom-up overhaul of the coaching and development system. Fourth place for the under-23s at the 2008 Beijing Olympics signalled the start of the new era - a methodical approach which is now paying handsome dividends.

"It's good to get them in a young age as a group, to get used to the pressure and all the things that come with the national team," says Huysegems. "(Vincent) Kompany was there at 17 or 18, (Eden) Hazard the same, Kevin de Bruyne, all these guys. That's why they can handle it now. In the beginning they weren't performing like they should have been, but now the average age is still probably only 21 or 22. Maybe they have 10 years or longer with the national team. The Belgian fans are really optimistic at the moment. One, two, years ago, maybe five or ten thousand came to the stadium. Now it is 30,000 or 40,000. It's incredible what's happening."

Huysegems admits it was difficult to be with the national team during the fallow period which followed the 'golden generation'. "Every year we missed a world championship, or a European championship, the pressure would get a little bit bigger," he sas. "We couldn't make the expectations because the talent wasn't as good as it is at the moment. It was as simple as that."

So can Belgium win the World Cup for the first time in Brazil next year?

"It's always difficult to say," says Huysegems. "You look at the names, and the (club) teams they are playing with, and you think maybe yes. To be honest, we weren't in the toughest group in the qualifications, so you never know. Of course when you have to play Spain, Germany, Holland, they also have good teams. At the World Cup you need some luck with the draw. If you get through the first round you can grow in the tournament. Hopefully Belgium can do that."

Huysegems is impressed not only with the quality of the team's leading lights, but also the depth of the squad.

"Most of the games we have (Christian) Benteke, but last two games he was injured so we can put (Romelu) Lukaku in there. A lot of teams are jealous of us at the moment. It's important to always have players pushing the other ones."

Huysegems won't be going to Brazil as a player, but hasn't completely ruled out going as a fan.

"It would be a great experience to go to Brazil and see some games but I am coming to the end of the contract so you never know if I will have the time," he says. "Maybe I will go home, be with the family, and make a party over there."