2014 World Cup Team Preview: Belgium

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Getting to know…Belgium
The mention of Belgium often doesn’t start the heart thumping and the fingers trembling. Usually, you’re more likely to start thinking about chocolate. Fries. Waffles. Mussels.

Ok, now I’m hungry.

But we’re talking about the World Cup here, and yes, teams should fear Belgium. Not based on their history: the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup was fourth, back in 1986. In 2002, they were knocked out in the Round of 16, and celebrated by failing to qualify for the next two World Cups and three European Championships.

Don’t underestimate Belgium, though. The majority of their players may not have experience in the biggest games on the brightest stages, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have the ability to scare their opponents. The midfield is packed with talent: Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kevin Mirallas are just a few of the names that could start. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And forward Romelu Lukaku may be just 21 years old, but he’s already had plenty of experience terrorizing defenses.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in UEFA Group G. And that group wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Both Croatia, who wound up finishing second, and Serbia, who finished third, felt they had a good shot at the World Cup finals. Wales and Scotland both put up more of a fight than many had expected.

Belgium clinched qualification in their penultimate game, beating Croatia 2-1 to send them into a playoff with Iceland. The victory allowed the Belgians to cruise a bit in their final match, drawing 1-1 with Wales.

A look at Group H
Belgium shouldn’t have much of a problem getting out of their group. Their recent performances meant they were seeded, and they’ve been drawn with Russia, South Korea and Algeria. South Korea could cause a few problems for Belgium’s attack, as they’re a strong unit who plays together very well. Russia, under Fabio Capello, will be able to adapt their strategy depending on their opponents, but they’re unlikely to move past the group stages. Algeria are the weak link in the group – a solid enough side, but one that hasn’t run up against much top-class competition.

Game schedule

Thursday, June 17 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Algeria (Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Sunday, June 220 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Russia (Estádio do Maracaña, Rio de Janeiro)

Thursday, June 26 at 4 p.m. ET: South Korea vs. Belgium (Arena Corinthians, São Paulol)

Star player
Eden Hazard. Sure, he got into a little spat with manager José Mourinho that left to Hazard being left on the bench for some (must-win) Chelsea games, but who hasn’t fought with Mou at one time or another? Hazard, the PFA Young Player of the Year, is the most talented of an immensely talented crop of young Belgian players. He’ll zip through the midfield, trickster his way around the defenders or simply execute a perfect pass that will have your jaw dropping.

Manager
Marc Wilmots, originally an assistant manager for the national team, took charge of Belgium in May 2012. He obviously guided this talented bunch of players through what could well have been a difficult qualifying process, but his biggest challenge lies ahead: how to make the right selections for the major games he’s facing. Without Christian Benteke, who ruptured his Achilles and is unavailable for the World Cup, Lukaku is a lock up top. But who plays behind? No matter which three attackers Wilmots chooses for his 4-2-3-1, some highly gifted players will remain on the bench – like Dries Mertens, who scored 11 goals for Napoli this season. If Belgium fail to go as far as many are predicting, Wilmots could find himself on the unemployment line.

Secret weapon
Is it fair to say Romelu Lukaku? After all, it’s hard to keep a 6’3″ striker seemingly made of pure muscle a secret. Especially since he made his first appearance in the Premier League nearly four years ago. The 21-year-old scored 16 goals on loan at Everton this last season, and has scored six in 28 appearances for Belgium.

Now, the pressure’s on for the young forward. While Belgium can certainly score from midfield, he’s still going to be the one looked to to knock in the goals. If he’s able to keep cool in Brazil, he’ll take his country far.

Prediction
Fourth place, losing to France in the match the runners-up are forced to play to determine who’s really the third best in the world. Not too shabby for a team that’s missed out on qualifying for five consecutive major international tournaments.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 10 — All eyes on Germany

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Many of the favorites in the 2018 World Cup have disappointed, but until Argentina fell 3-0 to Croatia on Thursday, Germany was the only one to suffer a defeat.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Die Mannschaft fell to Mexico in their opening match, with El Tri carving up the German midfield on the counter. Now, Joachim Low has had ample time to make the adjustments needed to go for victory as the Germans take on Sweden as they chase a spot in the knockout stages among Group F.

Meanwhile, Mexico looks to prove they’re not a one-hit wonder as they take on South Korea in Rostov. Juan Carlos Osorio has received plenty of praise – and rightly so – for his tactics in the upset victory, and that leaves El Tri with a chance to clinch a spot in the knockout stage with a win.

Before all that Group F craziness, Belgium takes the field in the morning against Tunisia as they look to follow up its comprehensive 3-0 victory over Panama in the opening round. A victory for the Red Devils would not only book a place in the knockout round, but also eliminate Tunisia from contention.

Below is Saturday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Saturday, June 23

Group F
South Korea vs. Mexico: Rostov-on-Don, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Germany vs. Sweden: Sochi, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Tunisia: Moscow, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Kluivert junior leaves Ajax for Roma in $21m transfer

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ROME (AP) — Roma signed Justin Kluivert, the son of former Milan and Barcelona forward Patrick, from Ajax on Friday for a fee that could rise to 18.75 million euros ($21.8 million).

The 19-year-old Dutch international forward has agreed a five-year contract with Roma.

“I’m very happy. I’m at an incredible club,” Kluivert said. “I cannot wait to start. I believe that Roma is the ideal team for my growth, which will allow me to play at the highest levels.”

Kluivert junior made 56 appearances and scored 13 goals for Ajax. He has one cap for the Netherlands.

He joins Roma for an initial 17.25 million euros ($20.1 million) and performance-related clauses could see the price rise by 1.5 million euros.

Ricketts family, owner of the Chicago Cubs, interested in purchasing AC Milan

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The Ricketts family, who purchased a controlling stake in the Chicago Cubs back in 2009, have interest in further pursuing ownership in financially troubled Italian club AC Milan.

According to a family statement, “The Ricketts family brought a championship to the Chicago Cubs through long-term investment and being great stewards of the team … They would bring this same approach to AC Milan.”

First reported by the Chicago Tribune, the news of the Tom Ricketts’ interest in the team comes on the heels of news that current owner Li Yonghong had failed to meet a Friday deadline for a $37 million loan payment. According to reports, the missed payment means that Li will cede control of the club to Elliott Management, who loaned the Chinese businessman the money to complete his initial purchase of the club last April.

The Chicago Sun-Times also reported the family’s interest in the club, and quoted their source as saying, “The Ricketts put together the management team, resources and training facilities [for the Cubs]. [They did] everything you need top to bottom to be successful.”

Ricketts has plenty of history in soccer ownership, having previously been a part of the group that owned English club Derby County before selling back in 2015. This May, Ricketts also announced he was leading an investment group that is looking to bring a USL expansion team to Chicago.

Forbes values AC Milan at $612 million – a massive 26% 1-year decline – and ranks them the 17th most valuable soccer club in the world. That valuation could be further on the decline, as the storied club missed out on Champions League qualification for the fifth straight year, although they qualified for their second straight Europa League appearance with 6th place finish in last year’s Serie A table, eight points behind Lazio in fifth.

AC Milan also faces heavy sanctions from UEFA regarding Financial Fair Play, although those fears could be eased with the financially-troubled Li selling the club.

The Ricketts family’s wealth comes largely from investment banking, with Tom’s father J. Joseph Ricketts having founded Ameritrade back in 1975. Tom is estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, while his father has an estimated net worth of $2.1 billion.

Xhaka, Shaqiri display controversial goal celebrations in win over Serbia

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A seemingly innocuous goal celebration performed by both Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri has thinly veiled, politically charged undertones and could potentially land the pair in FIFA disciplinary proceedings following Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia.

Both displayed a bird hand signal as they celebrated scoring goals, and considering their pre-match comments, post-match social media posts, and ethnic backgrounds, those were clearly meant to represent the double-eagle symbol in the middle of the Albanian flag.

This is a complicated political scenario, but it could be considered by FIFA to be politically provocative. Shaqiri is Albanian, born in Kosovo before moving to Switzerland with his parents and three siblings when he was just a year old. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is not recognized as a sovereign nation by Serbia. Xhaka is of Albanian descent, and his father previously participated in a demonstration against the communist Yugoslavian rule in Kosovo that landed him a lengthy jail sentence. Albania and Serbia have a particularly tumultuous relationship, with their leaders meeting for the first time in over 60 years in 2014, which caused tempers to flare.

Following the match, Xhaka posted a picture of his celebration on his Instagram story, with the caption in Albanian roughly translated to, “Here you go Serbia, this is why they call me Granit Kosovo!” He deleted the post, and replaced it with an image of his celebration side-by-side with Shaqiri’s, with the slightly more cryptic caption, “We did it, bro!” in English.

FIFA is wildly against any type of political demonstration or involvement in the world of soccer. The governing body has punished individual nation federations in the past for government involvement, while political demonstrations on the field are fiercely frowned upon.

Switzerland captain and new Arsenal signing Stephan Lichtsteiner came to the defense of his two teammates after the match. When asked about the celebrations, he said to Goal.com, “We had a lot of pressure, it was not an easy game for us. We have a lot of Albanians, so there is a lot of history between Serbia and Albania. It was a very tough game for them mentally.”

“It was good. Why not? This is the history for them,” Lichtsteiner continued. “The war between them was so difficult. I spoke to the father of one of our players who is Albanian, and he told me about this history. This is more than football. This is more than football because they have this period, this war that gave them both big problems. I understand them. I think it’s normal, it’s part of their life. There was also big provocation ahead of the game from them [Serbia], so I think it’s normal.”

Shaqiri could be in especially hot water. The Stoke City midfielder wore boots with the flags of Switzerland and Kosovo. He has made it clear in the past that he values his roots, saying, “I was born in Kosovo, but I grew up in Switzerland. I live both mentalities, it’s not a big difference.”

Switzerland finishes its World Cup group stage round with a match against Costa Rica on Wednesday in which a win would secure a spot in the knockout stage.