- Belgium are seeking to reach new heights at Russia 2018
- Midfield ace Axel Witsel remains a key figure despite a recent surprise move to China
- Witsel says Belgium ‘are capable of winning the World Cup’.
Belgium are in sight of reprising their achievements of the 1980's, during which they stormed to the final at the 1980 UEFA European Championship final and reached the last four at the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. Their revitalisation began with the Red Devils qualifying for the quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup, a feat they reprised at last year’s UEFA EURO.
Not surprisingly, more is now expected of this campaign-hardened squad under Roberto Martinez at next year's World Cup. While expectations among Belgium fans remains high, the same can be said of the players. Indeed, Belgium star Axel Witsel says Les Diables Rouges are capable of becoming world champions at Russia 2018.
"We have our chances (of winning the World Cup), of course," the 28-year-old Belgium and Tianjin Quanjian midfielder exclusively told FIFA.com. "But we will have to play game by game. We have a great team with top-quality players, but we need to be strong as a unit. There are teams stronger than us, such as Italy, Spain, Germany and Brazil. We have to believe in ourselves and focus on every detail during play. And it does need some luck (to win the title)."
Move to the Far East
One of Belgium’s brightest stars, Witsel has a broad and diverse CV, which includes a long stint in Russia. A product of Standard Liege's youth academy, Witsel represented Belgium at nearly every age level before graduating to the senior team in 2008.
He has since made 79 international appearances, notably figuring prominently at the most recent World Cup and EURO. At the club level, he won two Belgian league titles with Standard Liege, before a single season at Benfica. He had then four memorable years in Russia where he won nearly everything on offer with Zenit Saint Petersburg.
With broad vision and composed precise passing, Witsel has become a prized asset for club and country. It was, however, a surprise when he made the move to Tianjin at the start of this year.
— Axel Witsel (@axelwitsel28) March 25, 2017
"When I decided to move to China, I just explained to him (Martinez) my reasons and he understood," Witsel explained. "But I didn't have any assurances that I would stay in the national team. I don't see the problem to play in China and to be in the national team. You just have to keep training hard and it's what I'm doing everyday. Tianjin is a good team and we have a good coach in Fabio Cannavaro, who gives us his own experience."
Guidance from a legend
While aiming high at Russia 2018, Belgium still has to navigate through qualifying. With four wins and a draw, they are currently sitting top of their group, two points clear of Greece. Nothing, however, can be taken for granted according to Witsel, who says they must win the next two games against Estonia and Gibraltar, before facing hosts Greece in September. "The Greece match should be important," he said. "It’s going to be a hard game and a decisive game."
Still Witsel is in no doubt that his side can qualify, considering the progress made under Martinez and his assistant - legendary French striker Thierry Henry. "Martinez brought new tactics to the team and so far its working and we are really enjoying our new system,” Witsel said.
“The intensity of training is higher and we play more like a team. I think with him we can do amazing work. As for Henry, he passes on his great experiences to the team and especially to the strikers - they cannot wish for a better guide than him. He knows well how to compete in a World Cup and win it ... It's a top opportunity for us to have him in our side."
Having spent over four years at Zenit, Witsel can't conceal his happiness at the prospect of a return to Russia. "It will be a pleasure for me to go back there because I feel at home there. I had good time at Zenit. As I said, the goals are to go to the World Cup and win it.”