Belgium's current crop of elite players has been saddled with the dreaded 'Golden Generation' tag, so in part 3 of our 18 for 18 series, DAN WILLIAMSON looks back at the missed opportunity to rubberstamp their credentials at the World Cup in Russia, and whether they'll be realistic challengers in future tournaments.
Following their return home from Russia, the Belgium squad received a royal welcome from King Philippe and Queen Mathilde, along with tens of thousands of ecstatic fans in Brussels' central square. Despite the memorable photo opportunities, there was a feeling around planet football that their so-called Golden Generation could, and perhaps should, have achieved so much more given their individual talent.
Belgian football's first international halcyon period loosely took place in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the likes of Enzo Scifo, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Michel Preud'homme, Eric Gerets, Wilfried Van Moer, and Jan Ceulemans wearing the red shirt with distinction. The Diables Rouges/Rode Duivels finished second in the European Championships of 1980 before reaching the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup only to run into the unstoppable force that was Diego Maradona at his peak. Four years later, Belgium were cruelly eliminated by David Platt's unforgettable last gasp volley in the round of 16 at Italia '90.
However, following poor showings at both France '98 and on home soil in Euro 2000, where Belgium crashed out in the group stage, their FA knew that change was needed. In 2001 Michel Sablon – who was part of the coaching staff at Italia '90 – was appointed technical director, immediately laying down foundations that would shape the future of Belgian football.
Development, rather than an obsession with winning, became the focus at youth level. Utilising a 4-3-3 formation, players were encouraged to dribble and be creative. Talented players were to be honed at eight centres of excellence across the country and fast-tracked through the age groups when it was obvious they had outgrown their peers. Budding coaches were enticed into the game with the offer of free entry-level badges, cost being removed as a barrier for those looking to get on the qualification pathway.
Given the relatively small population – approximately 11 million – in comparison with other footballing superpowers, Belgium's FA realised they needed to maximise every single opportunity to develop talented players. No stone was left unturned in this process.
Belgium's under-21 team performed solidly at the 2007 European Championships, reaching the semi-finals with a squad containing Kevin Mirallas, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Alex Witsel, and Laurent Ciman – all of whom would be present in Russia 11 years later. The following year, at the Beijing Olympics, Belgium's youngsters finished fourth, missing out on a bronze medal after defeat at the hands of Brazil. Mousa Dembélé, who scored three goals during the tournament, and Vincent Kompany both featured in China and were also key components of the 2018 squad.
Ironically, just as the youth teams were bubbling away in the background, the senior team sank to one of their lowest ebbs. In 2009, following the failure to qualify for the most recent two European Championships and the 2006 World Cup, Belgium dropped to 66th in the FIFA rankings, below such international football minnows as Bahrain, Benin, and Canada.
Marc Wilmots, who won 70 caps for Belgium during his playing days and spent three years as the national team assistant, was appointed as manager in May 2012, initially on an interim basis. He guided the team to quarter-final finishes at the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championships, although exiting the latter at the hands of Wales was deemed a failure and soon after he was relieved of his duties. There was no doubt, however, that during his tenure Belgium became a force: since 2014 they have been mainstays in FIFA's top five.
Wilmots' replacement was Roberto Martinez, a Spaniard very familiar on our shores after spending most of his playing and managerial career in the United Kingdom. Martinez famously won the FA Cup with Wigan Athletic, against all odds, but led them to relegation from the Premier League just a few days later. Whilst his teams were often praised for their attractive brand of attacking football, they were also simultaneously criticised for their tactical and defensive naivety. Therefore, in some quarters, his appointment as Belgium manager just three months after his sacking by Everton, came as a bit of a shock.
If Belgium were fancied as dark horses in 2014, they were expected to be serious challengers for the 2018 World Cup. They cantered through qualification, scoring 43 goals and dropping just two points to secure their passage to the finals. The group stage in Russia was navigated with similar ease, with eight goals scored in wins over Panama and Tunisia. In the last game, against England, both sides fielded a reserve team and seemed happy with a draw. Former Manchester United starlet Adnan Januzaj obviously didn't receive the memo, scoring the only goal of the game in some style.
After a goalless first half in the second round clash, Japan shocked the world by going two goals to the good within seven minutes of the restart. The unfancied Samurai Blue were seemingly on their way to derailing the Belgian hype train, filing yet another talented bunch of players into the "what if" cabinet. However, the Belgians showed a steel that many perhaps doubted they had. The Japanese held out until the 69th minute when Vertonghen – now Belgium's all-time appearance holder – scored with a looping header. Fellaini equalised after 74 minutes following good work from Eden Hazard on the left-hand side. Then, in injury time, Belgium scored one of the most dramatic and thrilling goals of the whole tournament, a counter-attack at breakneck speed finished by Nacer Chadli.
A further gut-check came in the quarter-final against Brazil, much fancied themselves going into the tournament after a stellar qualifying campaign and, for the first time in years, a balanced-looking squad. Inexplicably, after half-an-hour, the Belgians were two goals to the good through a Fernandinho own goal and Kevin De Bruyne's strike. Renato Augusto pulled one back after 76 minutes but, despite pushing hard, couldn't find that elusive equaliser.
In beating the pre-tournament favourites, Belgium's Golden Generation came of age. However, their journey was cut short in the semi-final by neighbours and rivals France. Had the Brazil game taken too much out of them? Or was it a case of running into a slightly better team, no disgrace given that France eventually became champions? Perhaps it was a mixture of both. They regrouped, however, and defeated England 2-0 in the third place play-off.
Whether this tournament represents a success or a failure will depend on who you talk to, and whether one values the qualitative "process" as a measure of progress or the quantitative trophies. Unlike club football, there is only one major tournament every two years – in a European context – as opposed to a side having four or five bites at the silverware cherry every season. Only one team can win these tournaments and therefore failure to lift these trophies isn't necessarily an automatic disaster. Belgium created history by recording their strongest ever World Cup finish, going one better than the lauded 1986 side. Although winning a World Cup has to be the goal, to fall just short is no disgrace and proves that plans put in place almost 20 years ago have had a huge, positive impact.
The key now is where the Belgian national team goes from here. The often criticised Martinez, whilst making mistakes during the World Cup, surprised many with his tactical nous. His substitutes in the Japan game – Fellaini and Chadli – both scored decisive goals; in the victory over Brazil the coach trained the players who then executed the plan to perfection. Belgium were only undone by the future world champions by virtue of a set piece. The future of Martinez is the subject of much speculation, with constant links to jobs back in the club game. His assistant Thierry Henry has already left the stable to become head coach of AS Monaco, where he cut his teeth as a player.
And what of the squad? Seven of the starting XI from the France semi-final will be the wrong side of 30 by the time Euro 2020 rolls around. Crucially, defensive stalwarts Kompany, Vermaelen, Vertonghen, and Toby Alderweireld will be aged between 31 and 34 and will have even less mobility than they displayed 2018. However, players such as Thibaut Courtois, De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, and Eden Hazard should be at their peak in 2020, combining the perfect cocktail of prime physicality with experience at the highest level. Younger players such as Januzaj, Yannick Carrasco, Michy Batshuayi, Charly Musonda, Francesco Antonucci, and Youri Tielemans may have come to the fore in two years’ time. Given the shallower field compared to a World Cup, 2020's European Championships really could represent this generation's last chance to win a major tournament; Qatar 2022 may prove a bridge too far.
Behind the scenes, the age groups are still performing well. The under-17s reached the semi-finals of their European Championships, whilst the under-21s will look ahead to next year's tournament after topping the group with ease during the qualification process. Despite the relative success, Belgium’s FA are clearly not falling victim to complacency and, although it's impossible to predict if the new generation will have the star power of the current bunch, there clearly are talented youngsters coming through.
Belgium's burgeoning reputation as an international force comes against a backdrop of a declining domestic league. Like nations of a similar stature, Belgium's teams have been squeezed out of the Champions League as it becomes an increasingly closed shop that only opens its doors to Europe's heavyweight clubs. In the Champions League era, which began in 1992/93, Belgian clubs have fared miserably, which is reflected in their current position of 10th in UEFA's co-efficient. Five different teams have fallen at their attempts to navigate the group stage with Gent – in 2015/16 – being the only one to reach the last 16.
Off the pitch the Belgian league, which has just two tiers of professional clubs, has come under scrutiny in recent years due to shady foreign investors and allegations of match-fixing; sadly, many long-established teams have gone to the wall. Players often arrive in Belgium, or are parked there by clubs, due to the lax work permit rules, with the dream of moving on to one of the continent's more prestigious leagues.
Whilst the domestic league flounders, and many see the 2018 World Cup as a missed opportunity for the so-called golden generation to make history, the European Championships in 2020 should still represent hope. With promising younger players coming of age, and more experienced heads perhaps seeing it as their last stand, Belgium will no doubt be up there with the favourites in expecting a positive outcome.
Some will only be satisfied that Belgium's golden generation have fulfilled their undoubted potential if they lift an international trophy in the next few years. That depends on whether you view the journey (process) or destination (trophy) as the most important aspect of football. One thing is for sure: thanks to the reforms in the early 2000s they have come a long way and are now classed as one of international football's foremost powers. That in itself – from a ranking of 66th in 2009 – should be seen as an incredible achievement.