Every nation has its golden generation. For some, an endless supply of young talent allows teams to transition and evolve between cycles of great teams while others spend years relying on a core. The most successful sides are a combination of both. A blend of experience and maturity alongside a touch of youth offers a spark of creativity and dynamism. For France in 2018, it was such a blend that made them world champions.
For Belgium, the seeds of their golden generation were planted in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil where they were captained by Manchester City legend Vincent Kompany. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, by far the two standouts in the squad, were some of Europe’s most talented players at the time. Hazard’s dribbling was second to none, even being compared to Lionel Messi, while De Bruyne was an industrious midfielder with incredible vision and shooting ability, supplying the strike force of Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi. Between the sticks stood young Thibaut Courtois, a commanding 6-foot-7 keeper, arguably now the best in the world.
Since Russia 2018, where Belgium were among the favorites, the Red Devils haven’t shifted from the core that took them to the quarterfinals back in 2014. An aging defensive duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld is clearly past its peak as the pair now play in the Belgian league for Anderlecht and Antwerp F.C., far from the intensity they once faced at Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Injury-ridden Eden Hazard is a shadow of his former self and has rapidly declined since his record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid back in 2019. De Bruyne is perhaps the only player who has stood the test of time, cementing himself as one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. At the crux of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City dynasty, the Belgian has scored 60 goals and has 95 assists in the Premier League.
When the groups were drawn for this World Cup, many experts predicted Belgium to make it out the group. Their opponents included Croatia, Morocco and Canada. But a combination of factors, including team unrest, lack of on-field cohesion and a pragmatic mentality ultimately sent the No. 2 FIFA-ranked team home. In their first game, Roberto Martinez’s side only managed a 1–0 victory against Canada, where Courtois saved Alphonso Davies’s penalty in the 10th minute. Michy Batshuayi scored the winner as Belgium held on for a tight victory.
In their second game, Belgium came up against a strong fiery Moroccan team with a host of exciting players scattered across European giants. Despite chances, Belgium never really looked in control and were made to pay with two late goals from the Atlas Lions. This left Belgium in need of a win against Luka Modric’s Croatia in the final matchday. De Bruyne’s side was handed a lifeline in the 20th minute when the video assistant referee, known as VAR, reversed a penalty call. In the second half, Belgium went into overdrive as they kept possession in the Croatian half while flooding the box with players. They even brought on Romelu Lukaku, who has only featured twice for Inter Milan this season as he recovers from hamstring and knee injuries. The 29-year-old would miss a handful of chances, even hitting the post on one attempt. The ball simply wouldn’t go in for Lukaku as the match finished in a stalemate. Young Jeremy Doku was the only real attacking threat that troubled a well-organized Croatian side and should have been deployed earlier. He later defended Lukaku despite it being clear that his misses cost them a place in the next round.
When asked about Belgium’s chances at the World Cup, De Bruyne said, “No chance, we’re too old,” which wasn’t taken well by center-back Vertongen, who responded in an interview by claiming that they attack poorly because “we are also too old up front.”
There’s no question that Belgium has underperformed in Qatar. Expectations were high but the reality is that they haven’t reinforced their talented core with the right personnel. Roberto Martinez has officially stepped down after six years in charge as Belgium look to reset its squad and begin writing a new chapter in Belgian football.