In 3rd grade we had a grade-wide 'World's Fair,' where everyone did a big research project on a country of their heritage and produced a giant tri-fold poster board exhibit of your country. Positive I was the only one of Belgian heritage I worked pretty hard to produce a quality product, unaware that Amber Decou was going to try to one-up me. But she's a fucking Walloon, so it wasn't even a contest. Now it was the spring of 1986, so I didn't realize that I should have talked up the Belgian National Team who were about to Offside-trap their way to a 4th place finish in Mexico, their best ever finish at a World Cup (Runner up at Euro 1980, 3rd place at Euro 1972, and YUP- Gold Medal at the Antwerp Games of 1920). But I was an American kid in 1986, which meant I played soccer on a collection of suburban fields (quite well too I might add) but had never seen an actual professional game. 32 years later and I'm already sweating over De Rode Duivels performance this year. *Shameful Fact Alert* I was rooting for Belgium over the US in 2014 because I figured the US wasn't going to win the tourney, but maybe Belgium could...of course I forgot about Marc Wilmots...more on Belgium managers later, and yes, I am pretty ashamed I rooted against the US on that day.*Shameful Fact Alert* My preview: (Okay, so it doesn't seem like we're all doing team by team previews, but I follow this team relatively closely, and I've watched 3-4 of their qualification games/lead up friendlies live and caught extended highlights for the rest. I've also read/listened to multiple previews, with a special focus on Belgium, so I thought I'd give my $.02 here) Who: Here's a link to the current squad. You know most of them from the Premier League anyways. It reads like an EPL all star squad: Hazard! De Bruyne! Lukaku! Kompany! Courtois! Spurs CB Pairing! Etc.! Throw in a couple of guys playing in China, a tiny wizard in Naples and an art aficionado in Paris and we've got a starting XI. If Kompany can't go it looks like Dedryck Boyata will take his place. Kompnay has lost a step, but they will need him to marshall the back line against quality opponents (note- not Panama or Tunisia). A lot of people expected Dembele to play instead of Witsel (or even get Nainggolan in there) but it's clear Martinez prefers Witsel, despite the China move. Batshuayi can provide a lift up front off the bench, and there's even the option of taking off Lukaku to have De Bruyne slide into Mertens' spot so he can play as a striker. Sideshow Fellaini could get some burn in the last 10 of close games (either way) and Chadli may feature as well. Januzaj and Tielemans are young offensively gifted players who could be a desperation ploy. Where: Listed as a 3-4-3, reality is Belgium will play a 3-4-2-1 going forward and a 5-4-1 in defense. What: Offensively look for Belgium to work the ball from the back, with De Bruyne or Witsel to start the push. They like to use long ball from De Bruyne across the field to Muenier or Carrasco out wide, who can then cross in to Lukaku or one of the tiny wizards inside, both of whom will switch outside of the wingbacks at times. Sometimes Lukaku plays as a hold up man to find an onrushing KDB/Hazard/Mertens or runs to create space for those three (and Carrasco slipping inside) to make a lot of tight touch passes for a look on goal. If you haven't watched them play, I think you'll be surprised at the amount of touches Muenier gets. Defensively they look like a Roberto Martinez team- compact solid blocks in two lines. This can leave them susceptible to teams that can switch sides of the field or pressure down the flanks, especially on Carrasco's side. When: Right now. This is Belgium's "Golden Generation" (although they continue to produce young talent), and their 2014 WC performance (blah) and their 2016 Euro performance (bleh) did not inspire. This core should lead again in 2020, but by the next World Cup it's likely the back three (or at least two of them), Witsel, Dembele, and Mertens will have aged out of effectiveness and their all world players will be in their early 30s. This is the best opportunity to win a major tournament in a long time, so... Why: The Fuck did the KBVB hire Roberto Martinez? Because they were fucking cheap. The Belgian FA hired Roberto Martinez, fresh off under-performing with Everton, because they claimed their budget was too small to hire a world class coach (I'm far from LVG's biggest fan, but he knows how to manage a national team). Guys- have a fucking bake sale because opportunities like this don't come along often. Sell a national monument or something, but don't settle for a smooth talking, hard working, underachiever who doesn't seem to inspire faith in the best players. It's not personal towards Martinez, who is charming and quite bright, but this team deserves a coach to match their talent. How: They win because they have a stunning array of attacking talent to go along with a veteran defense supporting one of the best shot stopping goaltenders in the world. They have the ability to attack up the middle or out wide, on the ground or through the air, and have multiple players who can turn water to wine in an instant. They all have big tournament (and top league) experience, and they know the time is now. They lose because they can't figure out quite how to fit all their talent together to make a complete puzzle, they're vulnerable out wide, especially on the counter when their WB get caught high (and Carrasco just plain isn't a defender, in skill, mentality, or desire), and they can become stagnant on offense against packed in teams. Roberto Martinez probably ain't the guy to make a positive difference here. I have no doubt they get out of the group (I think they win it), and win their R16 game. But they then face either Germany or Brazil in the quarters, and that's when the rubber hits the road for sure. I truly love this team, but that's too tall of a task for a team this flawed.