Belgium looks to De Bruyne for elusive glory at World Cup

Now 31 years old and going to his third World Cup, Kevin De Bruyne is one of the great players whose careers lack true international acclaim.

The Belgium playmaker is beloved at Manchester City by his teammates and manager Pep Guardiola, and admired by opponents in England who voted him player of the year in two of the past three seasons.

A team-first attitude. Visionary passing. Lethal shooting, when he chooses.

And yet De Bruyne...

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Now 31 years old and going to his third World Cup, Kevin De Bruyne is one of the great players whose careers lack true international acclaim.

The Belgium playmaker is beloved at Manchester City by his teammates and manager Pep Guardiola, and admired by opponents in England who voted him player of the year in two of the past three seasons.

A team-first attitude. Visionary passing. Lethal shooting, when he chooses.

And yet De Bruyne still has no Champions League title and never made the top three in voting for a Ballon d’Or or FIFA Best Player award until this year. He was a distant third in the Ballon d’Or vote won by Karim Benzema, a five-time Champions League winner.

His finest accolade might be Guardiola calling him the best midfielder in the world in 2020.

Now the World Cup in Qatar looks like his last good chance of helping Belgium win a major tournament for the first time.

At the last two World Cups, the Belgians were stopped by 1-0 losses — in the 2014 quarterfinals by Argentina, and then in the 2018 semifinals by France. There were quarterfinal exits at European Championships as well — beaten by Wales in 2016, and held off by eventual champion Italy at Euro 2020.

Between all those disappointments in the red of Belgium, De Bruyne always looked majestic in the sky blue of City. He was at the heart of four Premier League titles since his arrival in 2015.

LAST CALL

Belgium has been primed with its “Golden Generation” to win a major title for nearly a decade now.

It’s one of the most asked questions in the modern World Cup era, like musing on Brazil finally winning a sixth title and Mexico eventually getting another “quinto partido” (fifth game) by reaching the quarterfinals.

Belgium coach Roberto Martinez could send out a starting lineup with six players already having made more 100 appearances for the Red Devils. Central defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have a combined 264 games.

The centurions do not include De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, still young for a goalkeeper at 30, who can both reach that mark in Qatar if things go well.

LUKAKU KEY

So much rests on the form of Romelu Lukaku, who did not play in September for Inter Milan because of a thigh muscle injury.

Still only 29, Lukaku has scored 68 goals in 102 games for Belgium and has been transferred for fees totaling about $325 million in a prolific career.

Yet there remain doubters because of two unsatisfactory spells at Chelsea and a final season at Manchester United that left then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer unconvinced.

Belgium has been a better team with Lukaku in it — see his two unselfish moves in Belgium’s fast-break goal to beat Japan in 2018 — and especially with his goals.

THE COACH

Martinez leads Belgium into his third major tournament after more than six years in charge, on a contract that is expiring.

The 49-year-old Spaniard worked exclusively in British soccer for more than 20 years until being fired by Everton just before Euro 2016.

Since failing to win Euro 2020 last year, Martinez has been linked with club jobs at Barcelona and a return to Everton.

WORLD CUP SCHEDULE

Belgium makes a relatively late start in Group F at the World Cup on Nov. 23, the fourth day of the 29-day tournament. That leaves space for a warmup game against Egypt on Nov. 18 in Kuwait City.

Belgium then starts the tournament against Canada, faces Morocco on Nov. 27 and Croatia on Dec. 1.

Belgium will prepare for those matches far from Doha as the only World Cup squad making camp on the peninsula’s west coast, at the Hilton Salwa beach resort near the border with Saudi Arabia.

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