On Friday, Belgium will aim to qualify for their first major championship since the 2002 FIFA World Cup – but, before that, their presence on the biggest stage was virtually a given.
The Red Devils reached every World Cup between 1982 and 2002, only once failing to get beyond the initial group stage, and on their runs to the last 16 in 1990 and 1994 their line was led by Marc Degryse. A point in Croatia on Friday or a home win against Wales four days later would put Group A leaders Belgium back among the elite in Brazil – and the former Club Brugge KV and RSC Anderlecht striker is confident they will do just that.
"We need a point, but out of two games, because we still have the last match at home against Wales," Degryse told UEFA.com. "That should be no problem because we have a very good team. They will qualify in Croatia. We dropped two points at home against them, but the confidence of the team is very high and we can surprise a few people over in Brazil. You have the favourites, and after the favourites comes Belgium, I think."
Author of 23 goals in 63 internationals as part of a Belgian generation featuring Michel Preud'homme, Enzo Scifo and Jan Ceulemans, as well as current Red Devils coach Marc Wilmots, Degryse is as impatient as most fans to follow the team in a final tournament again. "Since 2002 we have missed the big tournaments – no World Cup, no European Championship – so we are looking forward to watching the Red Devils playing in a big tournament," he said.
"The fans are really hungry, their enthusiasm is huge and now the support is well-organised. Also, around the Red Devils there is good organisation and they are very popular. So we are really looking forward to going to Brazil."
That they can talk about travelling to South America next summer is down to the blossoming of a crop as talented – or, in Degryse's opinion, more talented – than his own. "Now the coach has a lot of choices in attack," said the forward, who spent three years outside Belgium with Sheffield Wednesday FC and PSV Eindhoven.
"They are very positive. In our day we needed good organisation, a good mentality and then we could surprise the big teams, but we could not take the match in our own hands, we didn't have those qualities. Now they have, so they can play as a big team. [Eden] Hazard, [Christian] Benteke, [Romelu] Lukaku, [Kevin] De Bruyne, a lot of choices; [Nacer] Chadli behind the strikers. They all play for big clubs in big competitions and that's the advantage of the Red Devils now compared with 25 years ago."