By Paul Kennedy
Belgium is one of the hot World Cup teams, loaded with young talent from Europe's top clubs. Thanks to a very favorable draw in terms of opposition and travel, the Red Devils are overwhelming favorites to win Group H, though they'd then come up against the second-place team that survives the USA's very tough Group G in the round of 16.
Even without Christian Benteke, who will miss the World Cup with a torn Achilles tendon, and perhaps Romelu Lukaku, doubtful for next Tuesday's opener with an ankle sprain, the Red Devils are loaded.
Coach Marc Wilmots has the pick of players from the champions of Europe: goalie Thibaut Courtois and defender Toby Alderweireld from Spanish titleholder Atletico Madrid, Vincent Kompany, captain of Manchester City, and Daniel Van Buyten, who won his fourth German title at Bayern Munich. Its star, though, is 23-year-old Eden Hazard, the 2011 and 2012 French Ligue 1 Player of the Year with Lille and 2014 English Premier Young Player of the Year with Chelsea.
Fabio Capello's Russia is easily the least fancied of the European group winners. South Korea is coming off a disastrous pre-tournament run during which it lost at home to Tunisia and was clobbered by Ghana in Miami, while Algeria has not won a game at the World Cup since 1982 when Germany and Austria famously conspired to keep the North African debutant out of the second group stage.
Our picks: 1. Belgium. 2. Russia. 3. South Korea. 4. Algeria
Group H Schedule
June 17 in Belo Horizonte
Belgium vs. Algeria (ESPN, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 17 in Cuiaba
Russia vs. South Korea (ESPN, Univision/UDN 6 p.m. ET)
June 22 in Rio de Janeiro
Belgium vs. Russia (ABC, Univision/UDN noon ET)
June 22 in Porto Alegre
South Korea vs. Algeria (ABC, Univision/UDN 3 p.m. ET)
June 26 in Sao Paulo
South Korea vs. Belgium (ESPN, Univision/UDN 4 p.m. ET)
June 26 in Curitiba
Algeria vs. Russia (ESPN2, UniMas/Galavision 4 p.m. ET)
World Cup: Complete Rosters
Belgium was a regular at the World Cup from 1982 to 2002, advancing to the knockout stage five of six times, but the Red Devils' participation at the 2014 World Cup will end a streak of five straight major tournaments at which they failed to qualify.
Belgium's failure to reach the knockout at Euro 2000, which it co-hosted with the Netherlands, was a wakeup call to the Belgian federation to change domestic soccer at its core. A new emphasis on skills, adopted from the neighboring Dutch, was implemented at the youth level, and clubs began to recruit heavily in urban communities that had seen an influx of immigrants from Africa. The result is a "golden generation" of young stars that makes Belgium one of the deepest teams in the tournament.
The youngest of the bunch are a pair of 19-year-old forwards: Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj, born in Brussels to Kosovar-Albanian parents, and Divock Origi, whose father is a former Kenyan international and who followed Hazard to Lille.
STAYING PUT.The USA's draw was bad in more ways than one. It will not only have to face Ghana, Portugal and Germany, it will have to fly 8,836 miles back and forth between its home base in Sao Paulo and the cities of Natal, Manaus and Recife for its three group matches -- the most of 24 possibilities it could have been drawn.
On the other hand, Belgium not only faces Russia, South Korea and Algeria -- the easiest trio of opponents any seed drew -- it only has to travel 1,230 miles for its matches in Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, its home base, and will miss the heat of the Amazon and Northeast.
Player you'll know soon enough
GERMAN SON.Koreans have traditionally taken a route to the pros similar to those of their American counterparts: high school and college with the added step of mandatory military service. But top young South Korean players are now leaving home at a young age in search of professional opportunities.
Son Heung-Min moved to Germany at the age of 16 to join Hamburg's academy. He's just finished his fourth pro season at the age of 21 with Bayer Leverkusen, where he moved last July for $14 million. His inconsistency was an issue at Leverkusen and is with South Korea, but his pace makes him a danger up front or coming through from midfield.
What's in a name
DESERT FOXES.African teams are well known for their nicknames. Everyone knows Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, Nigeria's Super Eagles, Ghana's Black Stars and Ivory Coast's Elephants. Then we have Algeria's Fennecs. Huh? A fennec is the Arabic word for a small nocturnal fox found in Sahara Africa.