Belgium, and the Golden Generation that never was

Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne
Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne (PC: X)

RevSportz Comment

The likes of Paul Van Himst and Eric Gerets could be forgiven a snigger or two as Belgium’s so-called ‘golden generation’ of footballers head home for the final time from a major tournament. It’s hard to think of a more overhyped bunch, whose achievements were so far removed from what was promised. When all is said and done, the record books will show a World Cup semi-final appearance (2018), a quarter-final in Brazil four years earlier, and two last-eight finishes at the Euros (2016 and 2020). If this was El Dorado, Belgium found mere slivers of gold rather than nuggets.

At least, Kevin de Bruyne and company will always have Kazan, that one performance where they truly looked like world-beaters. That wasn’t a poor Brazil side, and Belgium were worthy winners in the 2018 quarterfinal. But ranged against that is a fistful of shocking results, none worse than the 3-1 loss to Wales in the Euro 2016 quarterfinal.

Wales, the team of Gareth Bale and 10 others. In perhaps the worst European Championships in living memory, a dreadful Portugal side that didn’t win a single first-round game lifted the trophy. Belgium, with Eden Hazard then in his prime, should have won the tournament with their eyes closed. Instead, they fell to goals from Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes, both Championship players at the time.

At the 2022 World Cup, their only victory in what was considered one of the weakest first-round groups was against Canada. At Euro 2020, they lost to an Italy side that had failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Hazard and de Bruyne were hardly the only stars either. Romelu Lukaku’s combined transfer fees over the course of his career are bigger than the GDP of a small country, while Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Thibaut Courtois and Yannick Carrasco have all enjoyed successful careers in European football.

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Kevin De Bruyne in tears
Kevin De Bruyne in tears (PC: X)

But the sum never came close to the quality of the individual parts. De Bruyne throwing up his hands in frustration as another pass went awry in the defeat to France encapsulated a decade of Belgian football. If the previous generations were all about over-achieving – Van Himst’s team lost to West Germany in the Euro 1972 semis, while Gerets and company lost to the same opponent in the final eight years later – this one will be remembered for repeatedly falling short.

It should haunt them all the more because world football hasn’t seen a truly great team since the Spain of Carles Puyol, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Fernando Torres faded away. Argentina came to the boil nicely to win the 2022 World Cup, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that they lost to Saudi Arabia at the start of the tournament. As for recent Euro winners, not one should even be mentioned in the same sentence as West Germany-1972, France-1984 or Spain-2008. 

It’s only natural to wonder just how much of it was down to coaching. Marc Wilmots, Roberto Martinez and Domenico Tedesco will never threaten the doors of the coaching Hall of Fame. Would someone of the stature of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp or Marcelo Bielsa have made a difference? Or were these players not really as good as everyone thought they were?

Considering that Courtois has been one of three outstanding goalkeepers in La Liga for a long time, and de Bruyne the best player in an English Premier League that Hazard previously illuminated, that’s probably not the case. But whatever the answer, for now, there are only regrets. Instead of leaving footprints on the sands of time, this group of Belgian talent leaves almost no trace.

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