Just like in 1990 and 1994, the Red Devils will be seeded

Last Friday in Zagreb, it was two years to the day since Belgium was last defeated in an official match. That loss came on October 11, 2011, when Germany won 3-1 in Düsseldorf at the end of the qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. Despite the Croatians’ arrogant brilliance, exemplified most forcefully by Real Madrid’s Luka Modric, Belgium’s sense of invincibility remained strong. Barring an unlikely reverse in Wales on Tuesday, it will continue for at least eight more months, because the next competitive match will not be until at least June 12, date of the 2014 World Cup opener.

By defeating Croatia 2-1 with the help of an extremely powerful and determined – almost terrifying at times – Romelu Lulaku, the Red Devils are now assured of a ticket to the finals. Having racked up seven wins since their 1-1 draw with the Croatians in King Baudouin Stadium, they have also surpassed their previous record of six consecutive victories, which dated back to the qualifying rounds for USA 1994. With one game left to play against Wales, the chances of extending the winning run are high.

Twenty-five out of 27 has never been done before. Without saying so publicly, Marc Wilmots hopes to make history by becoming the first manager to end the group phase with a glowing record (nine possible victories and one stalemate) and without a single defeat. Beyond the statistics, he has to be careful not to distribute playing time thoughtlessly. He risks destabilizing what he has built more than weakening it, given the amount of talent on the bench. As he likes to say, “the greatest satisfaction in this campaign has been the ability of fringe players to make a difference rather than just assisting.” To fulfill his task against Wales, and thereby achieve his goal, the national manager will stay the course, deviating as little as possible. In light of Marouane Fellaini’s suspension, Moussa Dembélé or Nacer Chadli will most likely start Tuesday night. Thomas Vermaelen will also start – “that’s a sure thing,” says the manager. Vermaelen has played just 131 minutes since the start of the season. A full 90 minutes in a familiar setting, less hostile than at Arsenal, will give a psychological boost to the Belgian vice-captain.

In the meantime, the general atmosphere and the Sunday afternoon commentaries demonstrate that the Devils and their fans are already thinking ahead to Brazil. This fervor is only likely to rise in a few weeks’ time, when they find out the names of their three group opponents. As the time of writing, FIFA has not yet revealed the criteria for the 2nd, 3rd and 4th pots in the December 6 draw at Colpa Do Saulpa, near Salvador. Whatever they may be, the Belgians can now afford to remain indifferent about the issue, since they know that nothing can prevent them from being named one of the eight seeded teams. On this matter, things are pretty clear: the FIFA rankings reign supreme.

The Red Devils first thought that four points out of a possible six against Croatia and Wales would be enough to assure them of protected status. But after reviewing this weekend’s results, they have nothing to fear when the new FIFA rankings are published on Thursday, October 17. With a minimum of 1,138 points (even taking into account a possible surprise loss to Wales on Tuesday), Belgium, no longer hoping to steal fifth spot from Colombia, can only be overtaken by one team: Uruguay. The South Americans will have 1,164 points if they beat Argentina Tuesday in Conmebol qualifying. As for the Netherlands, who will attain 1,136 points with a win in Turkey, they will finish just behind Belgium by two tiny points. It’s enough of a gap, as the statistics prove, to assure Les Diables Rouges a place in the top seven.

As things stand, Belgium is assured of avoiding the five teams that currently sit at the top of the FIFA rankings, namely Spain, Argentina, Germany, Italy and Colombia, and the host country, Brazil, in the first round of the World Cup. The Belgians will know on Thursday whether Uruguay (7th) or the Netherlands (8th) will be the last to sign the non-aggression pact for the first two weeks of the tournament.

The Belgians have not had the privilege of being seeded since the World Cups of 1990 (where Spain’s possible reinstatement as a seed – after an international outcry – was rejected at the last minute by Michel D’Hooghe, the Belgian member of the FIFA Executive Committee) and 1994 (no such issues), with the exception of Euro 2000, when they were joint hosts. 2014 will soon be added to the Devils’ seeding resume.

FREDERIC LARSIMONT

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