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FIFA World Cup countdown: Top 10 Belgian players of all time

As part of the 50-day countdown to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Sports Mole looks at the top 10 players in the history of Belgium.

After a 12-year absence from major international tournaments, Belgium will return to the grandest stage when they arrive in Brazil for the World Cup this summer.

Rarely will they have gone into a tournament with such optimism, either, with a golden generation that saw them climb to an all-time high of fifth in the FIFA World Cup rankings in October last year.

They do have some pedigree on the international stage already having finished fourth in the 1986 World Cup and as runners-up in the 1980 European Championships, kicking off what many regard to be their original golden generation.

Here, to continue Sports Mole's countdown to the World Cup, we take a look at the top 10 Belgian players of all time.

10. Eric Gerets (1975-91, 86 caps, two goals)

Eric Gerets was right at the heart of Belgian football's purple patch in the 1980s, carving out a successful international career that saw him retire as the third most capped player in the country's history.

'The Lion' played a key role in helping his side to the final of the 1980 European Championships before leading them to their best-ever World Cup finish six years later. He also featured in the 1982 tournament, when Belgium beat reigning world champions Argentina, and in 1990, where his side were eliminated by a late David Platt wonder goal.

He enjoyed even greater success at club level, however. After 12 years with Standard Liege, during which time he won two league titles and a cup, he moved to AC Milan and MVV. It was at PSV Eindhoven where he really made his name, however, winning six league titles and three cups in seven years, as well as captaining the side to European Cup success in 1988.

Belgium's Eric Gerets challenges England's Steve Bull for possession on June 26, 1990.© Getty Images

9. Raymond Braine (1925-39, 54 caps, 26 goals)

Raymond Braine's goalscoring exploits are stuff of legend in Belgium having netted a reported 141 goals in 142 games for Beerschot VAC before becoming the first professional player in the country's history with a move to Sparta Prague.

There, he scored a further 120 goals in just 106 matches, winning two league championships and the Mitropa Cup before moving back to Beerschot, where he added a further two titles to the four he won before leaving.

Internationally, his 26 goals make him the fifth-highest scorer in Belgium's history, while he also featured in the 1938 World Cup having turned down a lucrative offer for Czechoslovakian citizenship four years earlier. IFFHS went as far as to name Braine the 64th best player of the 20th century.

8. Michel Preud'homme (1979-94, 58 caps, no goals)

Few Belgian players can claim to have been the best in the world in their position during their career, but Michel Preud'homme was certainly amongst the upper echelon of goalkeepers at his peak.

In a 22-year career that saw him make almost 200 appearances for each of his three clubs, he won three league titles, three domestic cups and a Cup Winners' Cup. He featured for Belgium in the 1990 World Cup, but it was four years later that the tournament saw the best of him as he became the inaugural winner of the Yashin award, given to the best goalkeeper in the competition.

That year he was also voted UEFA's Goalkeeper of the Year and IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper, having previously won two Player of the Year awards in Belgium in the space of three seasons.

Belgium's Michel Preud'homme makes a save from Marc Overmars on June 25, 1994.© Getty Images

7. Jef Jurion (1955-67, 64 caps, nine goals)

Famous for wearing his glasses during matches, Armand 'Jef' Jurion was instrumental in putting Belgian football on the map at a time when they were still feeling their way into the game at both club and international level.

The relatively new European Cup had not been kind to Jurion's Anderlecht team until the 1962-63 season, when he scored a late goal to send the mighty Real Madrid crashing out in the first round having also netted in the first-leg 3-3 draw at the Bernabeu.

That memorable strike earned Jurion the nickname 'Mister Europe', but in Belgium they had long been aware of his quality. He won eight league titles and one cup during a 15-year career with Anderlecht and was also named Belgian Player of the Year on two occasions.

6. Vincent Kompany (2004-present, 56 caps, four goals)

The leader of the new golden generation of Belgian football, Vincent Kompany has established himself as one of the best central defenders in the world since his move to Manchester City.

The 28-year-old showed promise from an early age, being named Belgian Player of the Year and making his debut for the national team while still in his teens. He won two league titles with Anderlecht before a brief spell in the Bundesliga with Hamburg.

It is at City where he has really blossomed, however, inspiring them to their first league title in 44 years and being named the Premier League's Player of the Season for 2011-12. At 28, he still has plenty of time to work his way up this list, and leading his side to a good performance in Brazil would certainly do him no harm in that respect.

Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany in action for Belgium on August 14, 2013.© Getty Images

5. Wilfried van Moer (1966-82, 57 caps, nine goals)

A mainstay of the Belgian side when fit, Wilfried van Moer would have surely added to his tally of 57 caps had it not been for a broken leg that kept him out of the international setup for the best part of five years. When he eventually was recalled, he quickly established himself as the team's most valuable asset and played well into his 30s.

He arguably got better as he got older and was instrumental in helping his country to a surprise second place in the 1980 European Championships. That year, at the age of 35, he came fourth in the voting for the Ballon d'Or, equalling the best ever showing from a Belgian.

At club level, he was the star of a dominant Standard Liege side that won three consecutive league titles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His contribution was recognised by his peers, who voted him the Belgian Player of the Year on three separate occasions.

4. Jef Mermans (1945-56, 56 caps, 27 goals)

The early career of Jef Mermans was blighted by World War II, but that didn't prevent Anderlecht handing minnows Tubantia a blank cheque to secure the services of the striker. The result was a record fee of 125,000 Belgian francs and the beginning of an illustrious career.

Mermans went on to score a record 338 goals in 384 matches for Anderlecht, firing the team to seven Belgian championships and finishing as top scorer in the competition on three occasions. His form was so impressive that the likes of Roma, Torino, Lazio, Atletico Madrid and even the all-conquering Real Madrid made offers for him.

He spent 11 years as an international player and remains Belgium's fourth-highest scorer of all time with 27 goals. He also featured in the 1954 World Cup, helping his side to a memorable 4-4 draw against England.

3. Jean-Marie Pfaff (1976-87, 64 caps, no goals)

Jean-Marie Pfaff was arguably the most important member of Belgium's original golden generation as he carved out a formidable reputation in the Red Devils' goal. An 11-year international career saw him take in four major tournaments, including helping Belgium to second place in the 1980 European Championships and a best-ever finish of fourth in the 1986 World Cup.

At club level he experienced even greater success, winning a league title and a cup with Beveren before securing a move to German giants Bayern Munich. There, he won two Bundesliga titles and three DFB-Pokal crowns before brief stints with Lierse and Trabzonspor.

Individually, he was named Belgian Player of the Year in 1978 and IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper in 1987, as well as being included in the 1986 World Cup Dream Team. IFFHS later named him the 10th best goalkeeper of the 20th century, while Pele included him in his 125 greatest living footballers in celebration of FIFA's 100th anniversary.

Belgium goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pffaf dives to make save on June 22, 1986.© Getty Images

2. Jan Ceulemans (1977-91, 96 caps, 23 goals)

No player has won more international caps for Belgium than Jan Ceulemans, who acted as the driving force behind their purple patch in the 1980s. He was instrumental in helping the team to the 1980 European Championships final, while six years later he led the team to fourth place in the World Cup - their best finish in the competition.

He also featured in the 1982 World Cup as Belgium opened the campaign with a shock victory over reigning champions Argentina, while his final appearance on the biggest stage came in the 1990 edition when he came within inches of eliminating England before Platt's extra-time winner sent the Red Devils crashing out.

At club level he is most synonymous with Club Brugge having turned down an offer to join Italian giants AC Milan, going on to make more than 400 appearances for the club. He was named both the Belgian Player of the Year and Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year on three occasions and was included in the Euro 1980 and 1986 World Cup Dream Teams.

Belgium's Jan Ceulemans keeps possession against the Soviet Union on June 15, 1986.© Getty Images

1. Paul van Himst (1960-74, 81 caps, 30 goals)

With 30 goals in his 81 matches, no player has scored more times for Belgium than Paul van Himst. That is just one of a number of records set in an illustrious career spanning 18 years, 14 of which saw him turn out for the Red Devils.

The majority of his club career was spent with Anderlecht, where he won eight league titles and scored 233 goals in 457 appearances. At international level, his 81 caps encompassed two major tournaments, including the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

His haul of four Belgian Player of the Year awards is a record, while both UEFA and the Belgian FA named him as the country's best player of the last 50 years in 2003. IFFHS went even further and classed him as the 39th greatest player of the 20th century, above the likes of Kenny Dalglish, Roberto Baggio and Tom Finney.

Belgium will face Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group stages of this summer's World Cup, and you can follow every match live with Sports Mole.

Continuing our 50-day countdown to the tournament, we will be looking at the greatest players in the history of Bosnia tomorrow.

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