Two years ago, at The Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille, a nation held its breath. As Sam Vokes connected with Chris Gunter’s cross, the ball went flying over Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois into the far corner to knock Belgium out of the European Championships.
For many, it was Belgium’s best chance of silverware in the nation’s history. For the country’s golden generation to lose in the quarter-finals to Wales was a disaster. Now, with the greatest footballing competition on earth quickly approaching, there seems to be a feeling that this is the last chance for glory, for a nation, previously better known for chocolate than for football.
Belgian football journalist, Sven Claes, certainly knows the importance of this summer’s World Cup. “It’s the last chance for this team to win a trophy,” he says.
Belgium have never been a particularly strong footballing nation. They reached the World Cup semi-finals in Mexico in 1986, but they have always struggled to escape the shadow of their Dutch neighbours.
But after Euro 2012, seemingly out of the blue, Belgium started to produce some of the most exciting talents in world football. Belgium’s former technical director of football, Michel Sablon, put the emergence of talented youngsters down to his new methods: refusing to focus on winning, and developing youth instead.
And to accompany Sablon’s vision; after Belgium’s poor showing at the 1998 World Cup in France, Belgium’s current under-17 coach, Bob Browaeys, also had a hand in producing an extraordinary amount of talent for a nation with a population of just over 11 million.
Browaeys helped nurture youth by fast-tracking the likes of Eden Hazard to Lille in France when he was just 14, to progress at a bigger club with a much stronger league.
And Claes says this is the greatest set of players his nation has ever produced.
Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in world football. When fit, there aren’t many better than Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, and Toby Alderweireld has been one of the Premier League’s best central-defenders in recent years.
In midfield and going forward, the country have a plethora of talented players that are, like most of their starting defence, rooted in the Premier League. Moussa Dembele, like Alderweireld, has been a catalyst for a Tottenham side that many consider the best side Spurs have had in the Premier League.
Kevin De Bruyne is in the form of his life. He has the most assists in the Premier League this season with 15, and has been the best central-midfielder in Europe at times this season. Romelu Lukaku, at just 24, is already the country’s all-time leading international goalscorer, and the man expected to lead the line at Manchester United for years to come, while Hazard, like De Bruyne, is part of an elite list of players who could play for virtually any club in the world. Not to forget the likes of Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and Napoli’s Dries Mertens in Serie A, as well a the promising Youri Tielemans of AS Monaco.
But, much like the England side managed under Sven Goran-Eriksson, they have been unable to handle the pressure the clichéd golden generation tag comes with.
The World Cup in 2014 may have come too early for the likes of De Bruyne and Hazard, but they were still lacklustre in Brazil, going out, again in the quarters, and there was no hiding place for former manager Marc Wilmots at the Euros. A man who appeared tactically naive, something Claes agrees with, but he doesn’t solely place the blame on him.
“It’s not fair to blame only on the coach. It’s the players who have to perform well on the pitch. But the Belgian media always had doubts about the tactical capacities of Wilmots,” he said.
Despite the golden generation label, Belgian reporter, Kristof Terreur, believes the side’s underwhelming performances have a deeper rooted problem. “Most of our players have been formed by different philosophies at their clubs,” he said.
“And when they are playing for Belgium they automatically tend to do what’s been taught to them by their manager at a club level. France, Spain and Germany have a pretty unified education system.”
It was certainly a little strange to see the former Wigan Athletic and Everton manager Roberto Martinez appointed as Belgium boss. Especially given how unorganised this Belgium side looked under Wilmots, a factor that seemed to be one of Martinez’s faults on Merseyside, and Claes doesn’t think his nation has improved in the two years Martinez has been at the helm.
While Terreur isn’t convinced by Martinez’s tactical nous either, pointing to his defensive weaknesses at Everton.
And with Kompany now 32, Alderweireld 29, and Jan Vertonghen 31, Russia really could be the last chance for success for this side.
“It’s now or never for this generation as we can’t count on this ageing defence in four years,” said Terreur. “And currently we have no good defenders, not even wing-backs, coming up.”
Despite a lack of youthful defenders, Hazard, 27, and De Bruyne, 26, are arguably at the peak of their careers. And with the likes of Lukaku, 24, and Mertens, 31, it seems Belgium have a perfect age range in midfield and going forward, but Terreur remains sceptical.
“We lack real leaders and winners, who don’t panic in difficult situations. We also lack experience in knock-out stages, with most of the English teams (with Belgians) eliminated early in the European competitions.”
He seems spot on here. Especially when you consider the way Kompany and De Bruyne struggled to cope with the pressure during Manchester City’s Champions League collapse against Liverpool. As well as United (Lukaku), Chelsea (Courtois and Hazard), and Tottenham (Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Dembele) going out of the competition in the last 16.
Belgium go into the World Cup placed third in the extremely debatable FIFA world rankings. And it goes without saying that Martinez has some of the best players in the world at his disposal. But they lack the depth and experience the likes of France, Brazil and Germany possess. If you look past The Red Devils’ starting 11, the talent certainly seems to dry up as you roll across the bench, whereas the French could have a B team competing in the finals.
Because of this – as well as having the Spaniard in charge – Belgium will go to Russia with another cliché attached to them: dark horses.
But it seems they have, what could be, a comfortable route to the quarter-finals. Despite this, both Terreur and Claes are realistic. They say the goal for the country is the semi-finals, which in some ways would represent a good tournament, but you feel with the quality the country has produced, if they come away empty-handed, they may look back on this period – including that fateful night in Lille – with a nostalgic feeling of what might have been.