Following Scotland's dramatic last-gasp defeat in Wales, Craig Levein labelled Tuesday's game against Belgium a must-win. They will have their work cut out. Belgium are finally finding their feet, proving themselves to be more than a collection of high-profile, promising players who somehow never live up to their billing. They seem to have turned a corner, starting their qualifying campaign with two wins and a draw, with Friday's comprehensive 3-0 win in Serbia a firm statement of intent. This is their time and they plan to take this form and attitude from the Marakana in Belgrade all the way to the Maracana in Rio De Janeiro, and the whole country is with them on their journey.
Something's changed in Belgium. In a country that is at times fiercely torn between its Dutch-speaking North and Francophone South, Belgians have rediscovered the pleasures of supporting one national team. The Heysel stadium in Brussels sold out weeks ago for the Scotland game, just as it did for the previous four home games. Things used to be different - people were indifferent. Only in the last few years have an exciting group of talented players managed to slowly convince Belgium that they could be the team to replicate the great successes of the 1980s, when Belgium were finalists at Euro 1980 and reached the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup.
The current crop of Belgian footballers is intrinsically better than that generation and should have an even better shot at success, but it has eluded them so far due to a combination of factors. Luck has been one. Two managers walking out for a fistful of euros hasn't helped either. The issue cited most often, though, has been lack of experience. The average age of Friday's starting XI was only 23. Since most of the side hasn't changed since the qualifiers for Euro 2012, this means Belgium had some very young and inexperienced players starting in a group including Germany and Turkey. And it was that inexperience which cost them dearly in a number of games. Mistakes often came from a "look, mum, no hands" type of attitude, resulting in opponents getting the ball in dangerous positions. The young Belgians lacked the maturity and patience to kill games off. They finished third in their group, a depressing 15 points behind Germany.
Still, most Belgian football fans kept pleading for patience. There was a widespread consensus that reaching Euro 2012 would be a bonus but Brazil 2014 was a must for these players. That meant the support did not wane, even in the wake of another failure to reach a big tournament. Belgium's Devils had become red hot, it is as simple as that. In recent years, nearly all Belgium's internationals moved to big-name clubs, starting with Vincent Kompany's transfer to Manchester City in 2008. Many have followed him, moving to the likes of Benfica, Porto (Steven Defour), Tottenham Hotspur (Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen) and most of all Chelsea. Three Chelsea players were in Friday's squad: Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne.
Moving to big clubs was never going to be enough to generate the publicity, excitement and acclaim that currently surrounds the Red Devils. They had to succeed as well. And most of them have done so. Both Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen captain top Premier League clubs. Dembele and Vertonghen have made an instant impression at Spurs. Marouane Fellaini is immensely popular at Everton. Eden Hazard hit the ground running with Chelsea. Christian Benteke, a late transfer to Aston Villa, has started well. Outside of England, out on loan from Stamford Bridge, Courtois has firmly established himself as one of the greatest young goalkeeping talents in the world and De Bruyne is a big hit with Werder Bremen. Axel Witsel made such an impression in his sole season at Benfica that Zenit had no qualms about paying the massive buy-out price. Many members of the inexperienced squad of two years ago are now established as leading players at their clubs. It makes all the difference.
So, exciting players attract fans? Certainly. But there is more. The much-maligned Belgian FA, held responsible in no small part for Belgium's slide down the FIFA rankings (as low as 66th in 2009), has played its role as well. Football writer Raf Willems, who often looks into the sociology of football, is surprised. "I didn't expect this. At least, not this fast," he says in De Morgen. "Three years ago, the FA started to create a certain atmosphere around the Red Devils, like that in the Netherlands or Germany. An Under-19 game against Switzerland was free for all and 10,000 people showed up. Of course you need the players as well, and most came to watch Eden Hazard. But it has been the FA who have created this buzz around those players and the whole team."
The personality of the players is another important factor. Players like Kompany or Romelu Lukaku come across as intelligent, level-headed young men who will rarely act like the stars they are. They have time for the press and the fans alike and express themselves in a clear and honest way. Willems adds: "Lukaku and Kompany can define the identity of this team." An overall very positive identity. Belgians are traditionally modest, often overly so, yet here we have a group of talented footballers who are not afraid to play at the world's biggest clubs. It gives the whole country a sense of belief and the fans have picked up on this. Contrary to the situation some time ago, they actually believe their team can win - against any opposition. And it feels great.
The Red Devils have also been very visible for the fans, through all possible channels, forging a real bond between players and supporters. Many have accounts on Twitter and Facebook, on which they regularly post pictures, often with their Belgian team-mates, showing real team spirit. The FA has formed a fan club and created a Facebook page, which has well over 43,000 likes. On top of that, marketing company Boondoggle was hired by the FA to create even more positive vibes.
Stef Selfslagh of Boondoggle said: "They were a brand with a lot of potential, playing good football and, more than ever, they had players who put bums on seats. That is great but there is also a risk of a distance between stars and fans." To tighten the bond with the fans, Boondoggle created the "Devils' Challenges". One or two of the players regularly post a video in which they ask the fans to do something for them. In return, they will not only give it their all on the pitch but they also have a surprise in store. As a reward after one of the challenges, to "collect" 500,000db of fan noise, some players took part in a kick-about wearing inflatable sumo costumes. (Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=jcMP8VfV4gk) Not only is it hilarious to see the likes of Fellaini in one of those, but the clips also show brilliant team spirit. This is a group of players who value each other's capabilities and contributions. On top of that, they're having fun. All of this has helped create a genuine love for the Red Devils, unlike anything since the 1980s.
Most important, though, has been the appointment of Marc Wilmots, assistant to both his predecessors, as national manager. Dick Advocaat had already hinted that Wilmots was the ideal man to take over, but the FA went for Georges Leekens first. FA chairman Francois De Keersmaecker now says: "Marc is the right man, I am convinced of that. A national manager doesn't teach a team how to play football. More than anything, he needs motivational skills. Marc has those in abundance. He also understands the hardest part of coaching: to read and understand a game, and make changes that have a direct impact on the result." Wilmots is a hero of Belgian football, on both sides of the so-called "language barrier" that so often divides the country. Universally respected as part of the last Belgian side to play at a World Cup, the man nicknamed "Kampfschwein" (fighting pig) at his former club, Schalke 04, is a friendly but firm team boss, who has no problem subbing a big star if necessary. The result comes first.
And the results have started to improve - finally, some will say. Wales away was tackled in a mature and patient way. No showboating, just the result, which duly came with two goals from set pieces. Next, Croatia were very happy to come away from Brussels with a point, Guillaume Gillet equalising with a screamer from outside the area. On Friday, Serbia tried to over-run Belgium at the start but the storm was allowed to blow over before Benteke scored a good header from De Bruyne's magnificent cross. De Bruyne turned finisher for the second goal and Mirallas added a late third on the break. Scotland will have to be very, very good to get three points from this Belgium side, which basks in a warm glow of positivity and will be backed in Brussels by a full house of keen fans. It has been a long wait but once more it feels great being a Belgian football fan. Or player, for that matter.