BRUSSELS – Belgium's soccer team received a hero's welcome in Brussels on Sunday, after achieving their best-ever World Cup result in Russia.
Belgium beat Panama, Tunisia and England in the opening round, staged a dramatic comeback against Japan in the last-16 and fought past Brazil in the quarter-finals.
Their dreams of World Cup glory, however, were shattered by France in the semi-finals, but another win against England on Saturday sealed third place.
Belgium, who bettered their fourth-place finish in 1986, were greeted by tens of thousands of enthusiastic flag waving fans, some climbing street signs and traffic lights to catch a glimpse of the players who rode in on open-top buses along the streets of central Brussels, before heading to the city's picturesque Grand Place square.
After being treated to some fries, Belgium's national delicacy, at Brussels town hall, the team moved to the balcony overlooking the sun-drenched renaissance square, where a crowd of thousands had been waiting since the early morning, clad in the country's tricolour flags.
"When we were in Russia, we received many messages that you believed this team would make history. I hope we made you proud. We showed the world that we are Belgium," Belgium manager Roberto Martinez told the crowd.
Some of Belgium's key players will now have difficult decisions to make about where they play their club football next season.
Playmaker Eden Hazard, currently at Chelsea, has been linked with a move to Real Madrid and burnished his already lofty reputation with several strong performances in Russia with three goals and two assists in the tournament.
After scoring the second goal in Belgium's 2-0 win over England on Saturday, Hazard said he was considering leaving Chelsea.
In what could be another blow for the Stamford Bridge club, keeper Thibaut Courtois, who kept Belgium in the World Cup with a series of dramatic saves against Brazil in the quarter-finals, is also reported to be on Real's radar.
"Wherever I go, Hazard has to come. We won't let each other go no more. Oh well, we shall see. Holidays first, then I'll think about it with my people," Courtois told Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws.
Midfielder Nacer Chadli could also be set to leave West Bromwich Albion, who were relegated from the Premier League last season, amid rumoured interest from Turkish side Besiktas and French club Olympique Lyonnais.
By scoring 16 goals in seven games, Belgium also forced an electronics retailer to refund the purchase price of flat screen televisions for thousands of customers.
The retailer had launched a promotion before the World Cup promising to pay out if Belgium scored more than 15 goals.