This might come as something of a surprise, but when it comes to Euro 2016, Belgium is not — and cannot be — a dark horse.
The idea of the dark horse is a concept that international football has refined and made its own. Every tournament has to have at least one: a team that is certainly not one of the favorites, or even one of the teams that will likely step up should the favorites stumble, but lurks just past that point, on the edges of possibility. They are slightly more mysterious than just an ordinary outside bet, since they draw their potential as much from hunches and suspicions as anything concrete or calculated. As such, they are oddly paradoxical, in that there's an expectation of the unexpected. But if we're being honest, they don't really matter. Dark horses hardly ever win.
Two years ago in Brazil, Belgium's squad was stuffed full of youthful promise and the side was the definition of a dark horse, to the point that it became a little bit of a cliche. It felt right, though. Belgium is exactly the kind of nation that should be a dark horse: a small nation with a long, proud but largely unspectacular footballing history. All of a sudden it had almost an entire team of exceptionally promising players. Would they? Could they?
No, as it turned out. They turned in an exceptionally dark horse-appropriate performance: they got to the quarterfinals, pushed the eventual finalists close and then they went on their way while one of the pre-tournament favorites won it.
But since that tournament, almost every member of that side has kicked on in club football. Up front, Romelu Lukaku has had two goal-soaked seasons at Everton, and while Christian Benteke has found himself marginalized at Liverpool, Divock Origi has scampered his way into Jürgen Klopp's affections. Kevin De Bruyne's been excellent at first Wolfsburg and then Manchester City.
At Tottenham, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen have formed one of the Premier League's best central defensive partnerships, and Mousa Dembele's been brilliant in front of them. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois both won a title at Chelsea (though they both followed that up with a season of spectacular un-botheredness. Maybe that will see them nice and fresh). Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco goes into the tournament having scored in the Champions League final, and somebody is about to spend an awful lot of money on Michy Batshuayi.
Marouane Fellaini has continued to be Marouane Fellaini, except possibly more so.
Anyway, the upshot of all that admirable improvement and personal growth is that Belgium is not, and cannot be, a dark horse; instead, it's probably somewhere between an outside bet and a decent each-way shout. Which is something of a shame, and not just because "dark horse" is a romantic look and a strong brand. All football teams seem to like to pretend that they're underdogs. It makes life much easier.
Sadly, now that Belgium is a proper team we have to assess its chances reasonably and rationally, which means that we need to talk about the defense, and about Vincent Kompany. Or, more accurately, the big space in the squad where Kompany — the team's captain — would be if he weren't injured. A dark horse can shrug such problems off, since its capacities are largely imaginary and so endlessly flexible; a proper team struggles when its best and most experienced defender is betrayed by his malfunctioning body. The loss of Nicolas Lombaerts won't have helped either.
But such are the woes of proper, decent, in-with-a-shout football teams, and that's what Belgium is. A Belgian victory is an odd thought, yes, but it's no longer a product of an overactive imagination. It's an actual possibility. Appropriately enough for the Red Devils, they go to France as a distinctly pale horse.