Belgium and Croatia’s ageing star players are looking forward to one last tilt at Fifa Men’s World Cup glory in Qatar, but will have to get past a dangerous Morocco side and tournament debutants Canada just to reach the knockout phase.

Roberto Martinez’s Belgians are the Group F favourites, boasting a host of household names including Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.

Croatia, runners-up at the last World Cup to France, will again be led in midfield by the evergreen Luka Modric as they hope to surpass expectations again.

Belgium’s nearly golden generation

But Belgium, who finished third in 2018, have questions hovering over their defence, with a combined age of 68 for centre-backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, both now playing club football back home.

There are also worries over key players in forward positions.

Captain Hazard has mustered just 11 starts for Real Madrid since the start of last season, while Lukaku has only made two substitute appearances since August due to a muscle problem.

“Is Eden Hazard still an important player for the national team? Yes, 100 percent,” Martinez told RTBF last month. “I think his experience, the way he affects the opposition, the way he’s still beating players, he’s creating a real threat. For me it’s a profile that is one of the best in the world in terms of being able to play.”

Lukaku will not play for Belgium at the World Cup until at least their final Group F match against Croatia, a team source told AFP on Sunday.

The forward did not take part in the Red Devils’ first proper training session since they arrived in Qatar on Friday as he continues his recovery from a hamstring injury.

The Red Devils remain in the lofty position of second in the FIFA rankings, though, behind only Brazil, and will be hopeful of finally ditching their tag of ‘nearly-men’ in recent championships.

Belgium have not failed to reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament since missing out on qualification for Euro 2012.

Canada will be Belgium’s first opponents on November 23 as the North Americans make only their second appearance in the tournament and first since 1986.

But any thoughts the Canadians will be pushovers are likely to be misplaced, after John Herdman led his young side to the finals as the winners of CONCACAF qualifying.

Englishman Herdman took Canada to the 2015 Women’s World Cup quarter-finals.

Their top scorer in qualifying was Cyle Larin, who plays for Belgian champions Club Brugge, while Bayern Munich wing-back Alphonso Davies has returned in good form after a Covid-related heart problem. Davies, however, has an injury concern.

Can Croatia produce again?

Croatia enjoyed a wonderful four weeks in Russia four years ago, with a run to the final of which the highlights included a 3-0 thumping of Argentina and a dramatic extra-time victory over England in the semi-finals.

Zlatko Dalic had only taken the reins as coach during qualifying for that competition but remains at the helm.

His team arrive in Qatar fresh from reaching the Nations League finals, emerging as winners of a group which featured world champions France and Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark.

Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Rakitic have retired since the last World Cup, but 37-year-old captain Luka Modric, winger Ivan Perisic and midfielder Mateo Kovacic remain.

Morocco, Croatia’s first opponents, sacked coach Vahid Halilhodzic just three months before the tournament and appointed Walid Regragui.

Halilhodzic had controversially sidelined star players Noussair Mazraoui of Bayern and Chelsea’s Hakim Ziyech before being dismissed.

Morocco impressed for large periods of their matches in 2018, as they returned to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, but struggled in front of goal and finished bottom of their group.

Country profile - Belgium

Best World Cup performance: Third place (2018)

Other major honours: None (Euro 1980 runners-up)

FIFA ranking: 2

Main clubs: Anderlecht, Club Brugge

How they qualified: Winners of European qualifying Group E

Coach: Roberto Martinez (ESP) - The 49-year-old has enjoyed six strong years in charge but is yet to deliver an elusive first major tournament title. Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ reached the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time in Russia but came up short against France. This year could be the final chance for Martinez’s current squad to emerge on top, with several important players already in their 30s. Martinez has an excellent 72.4 win percentage as Belgium boss but has still only lifted one major trophy in his management career – the 2013 FA Cup while with Wigan Athletic.

Key player: Kevin De Bruyne – The Manchester City midfielder finished third in the recent Ballon d’Or voting and will be Belgium’s go-to man when in need of inspiration. Injury-prone captain Eden Hazard has only made 11 starts for Real Madrid since the start of last season and striker Romelu Lukaku has struggled for full fitness since returning to Inter Milan on loan from Chelsea. De Bruyne scored a career-best 19 goals for English champions City last term and has already notched 12 assists this campaign following the signing of Erling Haaland.

Group fixtures:

November 23: Belgium v Canada

November 27: Belgium v Morocco

December 1: Croatia v Belgium


Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois, Simon Mignolet, Koen Casteels

Defenders: Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Leander Dendoncker, Zeno Debast, Arthur Theate, Wout Faes

Midfielders: Hans Vanaken, Axel Witsel, Youri Tielemans, Amadou Onana, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco, Thorgan Hazard, Timothy Castagne, Thomas Meunier

Forwards: Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi, Lois Openda, Charles De Ketelaere, Eden Hazard, Jeremy Doku, Dries Mertens, Leandro Trossard

Country profile - Croatia

Best World Cup performance: Runners-up (2018)

Other major honours: None (Euro 1996, 2008 quarter-finalists)

FIFA ranking: 12

Main clubs: Dinamo Zagreb, Hajduk Split

How they qualified: Winners of European qualifying Group H

Coach: Zlatko Dalic – The well-travelled Dalic was a surprise appointment when he took over during 2018 World Cup qualifying, but helped Croatia through the playoffs before a surprise run to the final, where they lost 4-2 to France. He has since helped the team overcome the retirements of several stalwarts, including striker Mario Mandzukic, to see the team qualify for Euro 2020. There were some calls on Dalic to resign after a disappointing 2020-21 UEFA Nations League, but Croatia have bounced back since by qualifying for next year’s finals from a group featuring France and Euro semi-finalists Denmark.

Key player: Luka Modric - The veteran midfielder won the player of the tournament award as he led Croatia to their first ever World Cup final in Russia. He ended Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s stranglehold on the Ballon d’Or in the same year. Modric has showed few signs of slowing down since, winning his fifth Champions League crown with Real Madrid last season. Now aged 37, Qatar will likely be Modric’s last World Cup. The captain has made a record 154 appearances for Croatia.

Group fixtures:

November 23: Morocco v Croatia

November 27: Croatia v Canada

December 1: Croatia v Belgium


Goalkeepers: Dominik Livakovic, Ivica Ivusic, Ivo Grbic

Defenders: Domagoj Vida, Dejan Lovren, Borna Barisic, Josip Juranovic, Josko Gvardiol, Borna Sosa, Josip Stanisic, Martin Erlic, Josip Sutalo

Midfielders: Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic, Marcelo Brozovic, Mario Pasalic, Nikola Vlasic, Lovro Majer, Kristijan Jakic, Luka Sucic

Forwards: Ivan Perisic, Andrej Kramaric, Bruno Petkovic, Mislav Orsic, Ante Budimir, Marko Livaja

Country profile - Canada

Best World Cup performance: First round in only previous appearance in 1986

Other honours:  CONCACAF Championship/Gold Cup winners in 1985, 2000

FIFA ranking: 41

How they qualified: Canada finished first in the CONCACAF zone final qualifying standings

Coach: John Herdman. The 47-year-old Englishman has taken an unconventional route to the World Cup after starting his coaching career while working as a part-time university lecturer. After working with Sunderland’s youth academy he moved to New Zealand in 2003, and took over as head coach of the New Zealand women’s team in 2006. That led to a move to Canada where he guided Canada’s women to bronze medals at the 2021 and 2016 Olympics. Herdman was subsequently installed as the coach of Canada’s men’s teams in 2018, with the mission to qualify the team for the World Cup for the first time since their lone appearance at the 1986 finals.

Key player: Alphonso Davies. Canada have forged a close-knit men’s squad based on hard work, discipline and a clear tactical framework. Yet Bayern Munich’s Davies is one of the few players capable of providing an X-factor for the Canadians. Comfortable playing as a full-back or winger, Davies offers blinding speed on the counter-attack as well as a proven ability on the biggest stages. He was a key member of the Bayern team which lifted the 2020 UEFA Champions League and also played a key role during Canada’s successful qualifying campaign.

Group fixtures:

November 23: Belgium v Canada

November 27: Croatia v Canada

December 1: Canada v Morocco


Goalkeepers: James Pantemis, Milan Borjan, Dayne St. Clair

Defenders: Samuel Adekugbe, Joel Waterman, Alistair Johnston, Richie Laryea, Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria, Derek Cornelius

Midfielders: Liam Fraser, Ismael Kone, Mark-Anthony Kaye, David Wotherspoon, Jonathan Osorio, Atiba Hutchinson, Stephen Eustaquio, Samuel Piette

Forwards: Tajon Buchanan, Liam Millar, Lucas Cavallini, Ike Ugbo, Junior Hoilett, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin, Alphonso Davies

Country profile - Morocco

Best World Cup performance: Second round in 1986

Other honours: African champions in 1976

FIFA ranking: 22

Main clubs: Raja Casablanca, Wydad Casablanca, Renaissance Berkane

How they qualified: Morocco defeated the Democratic Republic of Congo in a play-off

Coach: Walid Regragui, 47, has had little time to prepare the Atlas Lions having replaced Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic on the last day of August this year. Born in Paris, he played right-back for a number of French clubs and one in Spain and was capped 45 times by Morocco, the home of his parents. His coaching career began in 2012 as a Moroccan national team assistant and he then guided clubs in the north African kingdom and in Qatar. The highlight of his coaching career came this year when he led Wydad Casablanca to victory over Egyptian giants Al Ahly in the CAF Champions League final.   

Key player: A stand-off between Chelsea winger Hakim Ziyech and Halilhodzic led to the change of coaches. The Bosnian accused him of feigning injury to avoid playing in warm-up matches last year, publicly calling it “unacceptable behaviour”. Ziyech, 29, responded by retiring from international football until Moroccan football officials intervened and dumped Halilhodzic. Regragui has hailed the Netherlands-born attacker as a “fighter who gives everything for his adopted country” but there are concerns about his lack of game time at Chelsea – he played just 17 minutes during October. There have been reports of a post-World Cup move to AC Milan. 

Group fixtures:

Nov 23: Morocco v Croatia

Nov 27: Belgium v Morocco

Dec 1: Canada v Morocco


Goalkeepers: Bono, Munir El Kajoui, Ahmed Tagnaouti

Defenders: Nayef Aguerd, Yahia Attiyat Allah, Badr Benoun, Achraf Dari, Jawad El Yamiq, Achraf Hakimi, Noussair Mazraoui, Romain Saiss

Midfielders: Sofyan Amrabat, Selim Amallah, Bilal El Khannous, Yahya Jabrane, Azzedine Ounahi, Abdelhamid Sabiri

Forwards: Zakaria Aboukhlal, Sofiane Boufal, Ilias Chair, Walid Cheddira, Youssef En-Nesyri, Abde Ezzalzouli, Abderrazak Hamdallah, Amine Harit, Hakim Ziyech.