A wave of gifted youngsters have galvanized the Belgian national team set-up, with rising stars Steven Defour, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel and Moussa Dembele already boasting 61 senior caps between them. In addition, Fellaini and Dembele were part of the Belgium U-23 squad that finished fourth at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, a performance that heaped further acclaim on the country's finest crop of young talents since the early 1980s.
Despite a 2-1 home defeat by Spain in their most recent 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier, Les Diables Rouges coach Rene Vandereycken's decision to inject new blood into his squad after failing to reach UEFA EURO 2008 has been more than vindicated. FIFA.com profiles the soon-to-be-famous five.
Voted Belgium's player of the year for 2008, Witsel is capable of excelling in centre midfield and on either flank. First called up for the senior national team a year ago, he has wasted little time in becoming a key member of Vandereycken's squad.
At current club Standard Liege since the age of nine, the boy from Vise in Liege province made his first-team bow in September 2006. That debut came under previous coach Michel Preud'homme, who knew Witsel well from the Standard youth ranks, and the versatile midfielder has continued to grow in stature and status under Romanian supremo Laszlo Boloni - appointed in the summer of 2008.
One of the heroes of last season's Jupiler League success, which ended the club's 25-year league title drought, Witsel's impressive performances on both the domestic and European stage have raised his profile across the continent. Nor has he shown any signs of being overawed at international level, scoring his first and so far only goal for Les Diables Rouges on his debut against Morocco.
After being handed the captain's armband at Standard in the summer of 2007 following the departure of club icon Sergio Conceicao, the darling of the Maurice Dufrasne Sclessin faithful was inspirational in the 2007/08 title win and the club's run to this season's UEFA Cup Round of 32. "The 'Prince' Defour was too good for (opposing midfielders) [Enzo] Maresca and [Ndri] Romaric. Every move went through him," wrote Spanish sports daily AS after Standard's 1-0 group-stage victory over Sevilla.
Though he favours a central playmaking role, the Belgian player of the year for 2007 is often deployed wide on the right with the national team. Set to turn 21 on 15 April, he has accrued an impressive 19 caps since his first senior call up three years ago. And while the aforementioned positional change has meant his performances have been less eye-catching for country than club, Defour remains a man for the big occasion.
Widely tipped for a move abroad in the summer, the Flemish midfield maestro and product of the KV Mechelen youth ranks is sure to have plenty of suitors once the transfer market reopens.
"The Belgian is a rough diamond," said former Everton winger and current BBC analyst Pat Nevin of the Toffees' big-haired midfield powerhouse. "Yes, he does pick up a lot of cards but if he fulfils his technical and physical potential, he'll quite simply be the best in Europe."
Already a firm favourite at Goodison Park, where increasing numbers of supporters now don giant Afro wigs in honour of their idol, the former Standard player has taken the Premier League by storm since becoming the Blues' record signing back in August 2008. Called up for senior international duty for the first time in winter 2007, the 21-year-old Fellaini already has 14 caps to his name.
Everton manager David Moyes prefers to unleash him in a more attacking role, though Fellaini is used as a play-linking defensive midfielder with the national team, where he and Ajax's Jan Verthongen are developing a formidable central partnership. Unfortunately for coach Vandereycken, the latter will miss Saturday's qualifying clash with Bosnia.
Impressing further forward for the Belgians is attacking sensation Dembele, who left Germinal Beerschot Anvers at just 17 to join Dutch outfit Willem II in the summer of 2005. After just one season, the powerful front-runner joined current Eredivisie league leaders AZ, where he has continued to make impressive progress under experienced coach Louis van Gaal.
Having grabbed a crucial brace in a 3-2 home win over Serbia on 22 August 2007 in EURO 2008 qualifying, the player affectionately known as Dem-Pelé in the Netherlands also fired a vital double in the 3-2 quarter-final win over Italy at Beijing 2008. More comfortable as a support striker rather than an out-and-out front-man, and still prone to inconsistency, Dembele has hit four senior goals thus far, while his skill and pace make him key to Belgium's attacking arsenal.
Could Hazard be the new Enzo Scifo? The sheer number of similarities would suggest so, with the pair sharing a birthplace (La Louviere), a position, precocious ability and even their physical build. At the age of just 18, the Belgian prodigy has just been called up by senior coach Vandereycken for a third time, having impressed on prior outings against Luxembourg and Slovenia. Currently at French club Lille, for whom he was their youngest-ever first-team debutant, Hazard appears set for a long and illustrious career.
"If Eden continues the way he's going, it's likely that by 2009 or 2010 even a player as talented as Steven Defour will have to make do with a supporting role at the national team, or be confined to one of the flanks for good, as the Lille man will have left him some way behind," said an experienced European talent scout last year. Indeed, the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Barcelona have all been hot on his heels since he helped Belgium to the last four of the UEFA European U-17 Championship in 2007.
Have your say
"If they're good enough, they're old enough," legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby once said. However, will Belgium's batch of starlets sink or swim in a fiercely competitive FIFA World Cup qualifying group also including Spain and Turkey? Click on 'Add your comment' to give your verdict.