By Elliott Almond » email@example.com
Little Belgium (about the size of the state of Maryland) has something to rally around. Almost everyone supports the soccer team a month after a divisive national election that saw nearly 2 million voters support separatists, who want to partition the Low Country into a Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south. Divisions between the Flemish and Walloons have been central to this North Sea land of 11.1 million people until now.
The favored Belgians are preparing to set aside differences for a big celebration Tuesday when facing the United States in the round of 16 in Salvador, Brazil.
A closer look at the Americans' next opponent:
In a country divided, it takes a special personality to unite the players. It takes a former senator, a four-time World Cup player and a midfielder once called the "Fighting Boar."
Meet, Marc Wilmots, whose diverse players have coalesced around the common cause of marching deep in Brazil. Wilmots, who played most of his career at Schalke in the German Bundesliga, walked away from politics in the mid-2000s and returned to soccer as an assistant with the national team in 2009. Three years later, Wilmots took over the program after the Red Devils failed to qualify for the 2012 European Championships. He led them through World Cup qualifying without a defeat. Now Wilmots is 3-0 in his World Cup coaching debut.
Player to watch
Attacking midfielder Eden Hazard, 23, is a rising star at Chelsea after a successful career at Lille in France. Hazard's parents both played soccer. His father was a defender, his mother a striker. "I like to think that I am a mix of the best of them," Hazard once told an English newspaper. His mother, Carine, played in the Belgian women's league before retiring when she was pregnant with Eden.
Hazard scored 17 goals in all competitions for Chelsea last season, and 13 the previous year in his EPL debut. Hazard plays either as an attacking midfielder or winger role, depending on the formation. It doesn't matter where he is on the field. Hazard is a handful.
A country bordered by football royalty of France, Germany and the Netherlands has worked hard to carve out its own niche. Belgium has reached the World Cup finals 12 times. The Red Devils enjoyed their best years from 1982 to 2002, when they reached the second round every tournament except 1998.
But after 2002, Belgium went 12 years before appearing in another World Cup final.
The nation never produced the big names of its neighbors, such as France's Michel Platini, Germany's Franz Beckenbauer or Holland's Johan Cruyff.
But Belgium has enjoyed its share of stars, such as midfielder Jan Ceulemans, who helped lead his country to second place at the 1980 European Championships. He scored three goals in 1986 when Belgium reached the World Cup semifinals in Mexico.
Enzo Scifo was another Belgian star from the same era. He played in all seven games for Belgium at the '86 World Cup, scoring two goals. The midfielder appeared in four World Cups for Belgium.
Great soccer moment
Belgium has enjoyed one magical World Cup, in 1986 in Mexico. The magic, however, began in qualifying where the Red Devils advanced to the finals only by defeating heated rival Holland in a playoff. Although the countries split the home-and-home series, Belgium advanced because it scored at the Netherlands. Away goals were the first tiebreaker.
Once in Mexico, the Belgians barely survived their group to reach the round of 16, where they faced the heavily favored Soviet Union. It took two overtimes for Belgium to advance 4-3.
It didn't get any less dramatic in the quarterfinals against Spain. Belgium shockingly reached the semifinals by scoring a 5-4 victory in a penalty-kick shootout. The journey ended at the feet of Maradona and Argentina 2-0.
The English Channel
Almost half the Belgium roster is filled with Premiership players, including the impressive front five of Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Romelu Lukaku (Everton) and Hazard.
Famous Belgian athletes
» Cycling: Eddy Merckx, five-time winner of the Tour de France.
» Tennis: Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin.
» Carol Alt, supermodel, actress.
» Liz Claiborne, Belgian-born fashion designer.
» Carl Karcher, founder of Carl's Jr. hamburger chain.
» Earl Louis "Curly" Lambeau, founder of Green Bay Packers, who play on the field named after him.
» Jean-Claude Van Damme, "Muscles from Brussels" is Belgian martial artist and actor.
» Produces 220,000 tons of chocolate annually.
» Brewers make more than 800 beers.
» Yes, Brussels sprouts get their name from the Belgian capital.
Belgium also reached the Round of 16 in 1986, when, right, it beat the Soviet Union 4-3. The Belgians went on to the quarterfinals before falling to eventual World Cup champ Argentina in the semifinals.