Just for kicks: Has Belgium’s golden generation lost its lustre?

Updated on Nov 29, 2022 02:15 PM IST

In an interview with The Guardian on Saturday, Belgium playmaker Kevin de Bruyne said the team, ranked second in the world, had “no chance” of winning the World Cup because “we’re too old”. On Sunday, his words appeared to ring true.

Belgium, third in Russia four years ago, lost to Morocco 0-2 in the World Cup group F match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on Sunday. Belgium will now battle for a last-16 spot against Croatia. (AP) PREMIUM
Belgium, third in Russia four years ago, lost to Morocco 0-2 in the World Cup group F match at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on Sunday. Belgium will now battle for a last-16 spot against Croatia. (AP)

For most of the match against Morocco, one kept looking for Belgium’s golden generation to surface. A little spark, a turn, a burst of pace, a shot from deep, or the sheer depth of experience that would allow them to turn the tables. But the longer one looked, the more one realised: there was nothing to see.

In an interview with The Guardian on Saturday, Belgium playmaker Kevin de Bruyne said the team, ranked second in the world, had “no chance” of winning the World Cup because “we’re too old”. On Sunday, his words appeared to ring true.

It is never easy to admit that you are past your prime. But watching Belgium play these days, it’s hard to deny it. On paper, the side that finished third in the 2018 World Cup, still have the squad that should give the best in the world a run for their money. In Thibaut Courtois,30, and De Bruyne, 31, they have two world-class players at the pinnacle of the Spanish and English league; Eden Hazard, 31, has made a long-awaited return to form after injury, and his class in unquestionable; and in Romelu Lukaku, 29, who missed the first game and played only a bit part in the second, they have a striker who can dominate games.

Yet, the rich pedigree can’t paper over the cracks in Roberto Martínez’s side. They are a bit too slow, a bit too stuck in their ways, and haven’t got enough younger players to power the starting line-up. And with 11 of the 26 players in the squad over 30, they seem like old wine in an old bottle.

Belgium’s golden generation, which started coming together in the early 2010s, may not have won anything major, but did climb to the top of the Fifa rankings in November 2015, when the team became only the eighth in the world to claim the No 1 spot.

This promise not translating into a major title, however, has caused some heartburn back home. “Without a trophy, we climbed to first place in the Fifa rankings,” their former coach George Leekens told So Foot magazine last year. “But this first rank means nothing. When you don’t dare to do things, nothing is with you. This mentality and this will to win does not exist in Martínez’s group.”

On Sunday, the defeat against Morocco in the second game of the 2022 World Cup saw them at their worst. It came on the heels of the match against Canada in which the world’s 41st ranked team ran them ragged. They can still qualify for the Round of 16, of course, but don’t expect too much from this Belgian side and you won’t be disappointed.

Belgium may not end as the first golden generation not to make the most of their talent. So many great teams have not claimed the World Cup trophy that the list makes for painful reading.

The Austrian Wunderteam from 1934 were exceptional -- professional and tactically spot-on, but their passing game didn’t click in the semi-final that Italy won 1-0. The 1954 Hungarian team were the Magnificent Magyars who had swept everyone in their path in the lead-up to the World Cup. Between 1950 and 1956, they played 69 games, won 58, drew 10, with just one defeat — in the 1954 World Cup final against West Germany.

The “Total Football” Holland teams of 1974 and 1958 were mercurial and brilliant. Their tactics were the envy of the world, and they were beautiful to watch. The concept of interchanging positions, the focus on possession, the creativity and the aggressive pressing — all things we see in football today — won them many admirers but the trophy eluded them. They reached the final in 1974 and 1978 but lost each time.

To this day, it seems unbelievable that a team that boasted of Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Cerezo, Eder, and Junior only reached the second group stage of the 1982 World Cup. They brought back memories of the great 1970 side and played with such verve and joy that they gave meaning to the beautiful game. But Italy’s pragmatic, defensive style, which may not have been easy on the eye, got the job done against them.

Michel Platini’s genius powered France in 1982 and 1986 and the “magic square” he formed with Jean Tigana, Alain Giresse and Luis Fernandes made them a joy to behold. They went out to the Germans in both editions. Hernan Crespo, Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez and young Lionel Messi, with ammo supplied by Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar — Argentina in 2006 were scary on paper. Many will remember the 25-pass goal but then coach Jose Pekerman made a few ill-timed substitutions against Germany in the quarterfinal and his team crashed out.

In the current context, Belgium are on their way to being a natural fit into this group. They are still in the tournament, — never forget, football is a funny game — and could turn things around. But it’s more likely that they have run out of time.

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