It’s time to deliver for a team that has featured exceptional talent over the past half dozen years but has yet to reach the semifinals of a major tournament.
It is widely acknowledged they have been held back by mediocre management. Now it is up to Roberto Martinez, a Spanish coach, to get the best out of this plethora of stars.
If you have Romelu Lukaku up front, Eden Hazard as a creative genius and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois for a final lock on goal, the ingredients for success are there.
There are issues in defence. Central defender Vincent Kompany is as brittle as he can be brilliant and there are very few credible backups available for the likes of Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
KEY PLAYER: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) — Overshadowed Eden Hazard at the 2014 World Cup, he has only grown in stature, especially since his move to City and his more withdrawn position on the field.
COACH: Roberto Martinez was a surprise pick for Belgium when it ditched Marc Wilmots after a disappointing Euro 2016. The Spaniard easily adapted to life in international management.
A first-ever qualification for the World Cup earned Panama a national holiday.
The Central Americans made it to Russia in style, defeating Costa Rica 2-1 in the final qualifier.
Panama has only 4 million people, but finished ahead of the United States, which has about 320 million.
Just an aside: Panama’s national game is still baseball, but soccer is moving in.
KEY PLAYER: Luis Tejada (Universitario) — The striker has scored 43 goals for Panama.
COACH: Colombia-born Hernan Dario Gomez has worked his magic again. He got Colombia into the 1998 World Cup, and then did the same for Ecuador in 2002. Now it’s Panama’s turn.
Unbeaten during its qualifying campaign, Tunisia is making a return to the World Cup for the first time in 12 years.
The Eagles of Carthage qualified for Russia ahead of Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya and Guinea and will take part in their fifth World Cup. They have never got beyond the group stage. With a new generation of players including Wahbi Khazri and former Monaco defender Aymen Abdennour, their main goal will be to win a game in Russia.
KEY PLAYER: Youssef Msakni (Al Duhail) — The 27-year-old forward played a crucial role in qualifying, scoring a hat-trick in an away win to Guinea.
COACH: Nabil Maaloul — A former assistant under Roger Lemerre when Tunisia won the African Cup of Nations in 2002, Maaloul took over from Henri Kasperczak two matches into Tunisia’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
The country that invented soccer no longer sits at the sport’s top table.
Expectations in England have plummeted because of the national team’s embarrassing performances in recent major tournaments —exiting the 2014 World Cup at the group stage and losing to Iceland in the round of 16 at Euro 2016.
Having the world’s richest and most popular domestic league has had an adverse effect on the England team, whose managers have an increasingly shallow pool of top players to choose from.
A young squad will be taken to Russia, so getting out of the group is as much as can be hoped for.
KEY PLAYER: Harry Kane (Tottenham) — Emerged as one of the tops strikers in the world this year, scoring freely for his club in the Premier League and Champions League. Has 12 goals in 23 games for England.
COACH: Gareth Southgate — Skeptics are starting to come round to Southgate, who took charge in September 2016 despite having little top-level coaching experience but has shown he isn’t afraid to make bold decisions.