One of the largest stories to emerge out of the deserts of Qatar has been the collapse of Belgium’s golden generation. Ranked second in the world heading into sport’s biggest tournament, many believed that this World Cup would be the last chance for Belgium’s greatest generation to bring home some sort of silverware to mirror the talent level of the squad. However, with Belgium crashing out in the group stages, their manager being sacked, and many of their greatest players retiring or falling out, could Belgium have forever missed their window of opportunity?
Belgium doesn’t have a rich history of footballing success. While nations like Brazil and Germany have experienced many generations that other countries can only dream of, Belgium failed to reach the last 16 of the tournament for the first 60 years of World Cup history. Until the 2014 edition of the competition, the nation of 11 million had only reached the last eight once.
After failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and the 2008 Euros, things finally started to look more hopeful from a Belgian perspective. Their 2010 World Cup qualifying squad under managers like Dick Advocaat may have failed to make it to South Africa, but showed some early signs of promise. An average age of 24.1 within the squad indicated this could be a team for the future, and with defenders like Alderweireld, Kompany, Vermaelen and Vertonghen all under 23 and already getting international experience, there seemed to be strong foundations in place. In midfield they had young talent such as Moussa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, and Axel Witsel, with a 17-year old prodigy called Eden Hazard also making the squad.
Belgium would also fail to make it to the Euros in 2012, but would add talent such as Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Radja Nainggolan, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku alongside useful and effective squad players such as Christian Benteke, who was thriving at Aston Villa, and Simon Mignolet, who would prove an effective backup throughout his time in the team.
This meant that Belgium had grown from an afterthought in European football to one of the most promising teams in the world. Eden Hazard had joined Chelsea and was proving to be one of the best talents on the planet; Kompany had proven to be an effective leader and title winner at Manchester City; players such as Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Dembele were becoming very talented Premier League players.
This meant that, by 2014, Marc Wilmots had one of the deepest and talented squads in the competition, but it also meant that results were needed. This was clearly the most talented Belgian squad of all time up to that point, boasting a starting 11 with a host of elite talents.
Their World Cup would start in nightmarish fashion – Sofiane Feghouli would slot away a penalty within the first half an hour of their first game to put Algeria 1-0 up against the ‘Red Devils’. However, after being frustrated for more than an hour of the game, the talent of Belgium’s golden generation started to shine through, and substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens handed Belgium their first World Cup victory since 2002.
Belgium had shown that they needed to be taken seriously on paper and on the pitch
In that tournament, Belgium would defeat the Russians 3-2, and Belgium would be victorious over them again in their next game with Divock Origi providing the only goal of the game. Wilmots’ 4-2-3-1 proved to be effective at preventing goals, but not that effective at scoring them. Attacking talent such as Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard failed to score in the group stages as Belgium finished with nine points; four goals scored and only one conceded. De Bruyne and Lukaku would manage to get a goal in the next round, but Belgium would eventually be knocked out by Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the quarter-finals.
In Euro 2016, Belgium’s Golden Generation would be weighed down by heavy expectations. They were stronger, but fell at the same hurdle. An impressive 4-0 win in the group stages would demonstrate that the squad had made another notable step forward, but elimination at the hands of Wales would prove unacceptable, and Wilmots was given his marching orders for underperforming.
It was clear that Belgium’s next managerial appointment would define their golden generation, and in Roberto Martinez, Belgium had appointed a manager with promise and someone who they believed had exceeded expectations in the Premier League.
The fear that Roberto Martinez may underperform with arguably Belgium’s best side ever seemed to be quelled at the 2018 Russia World Cup. The squad, which was once full of promise, was now full of experienced veterans of the European game. Their spine were all just past 30, while their ‘big four’ of Hazard, Lukaku, De Bruyne and Courtois were just entering their prime. If any tournament was going to deliver success, this would be the opportunity.
Utilising a three at the back formation, Belgium removed their weakest spots and ran out 3-0 victors in their opening game. The 3-4-2-1 allowed players like Hazard and Mertens to find themselves in their most dangerous positions, and Lukaku burst into life, scoring two goals. The striker would net another brace in Belgium’s second group game as Belgium would score five against Tunisia. In that game, Eden Hazard would net twice, but he would be dropped for their most important group game. Against England, Belgium took home a 1-0 win after a great goal from Adnan Januzaj at the start of the second half. After beating one of the tournament favourites, Belgium had shown that they needed to be taken seriously on paper and on the pitch.
Belgium would demonstrate that not only could they obliterate the weaker teams, but also show up when it mattered. They edged Japan in the round of 16, and managed to beat Brazil in the quarters. Thanks to a Kevin De Bruyne goal, Belgium had reached the semi-finals, and many believed that although France looked tough, Belgium were the only team left in the competition that could match them.
Belgium had chances to match the eventual winners and may have felt unlucky to face defeat and elimination. Their best chance at a World Cup slipped through their fingers when Samuel Umtiti scored from a set piece, and although they would win the third-place game, they had missed their biggest chance.
The 2020 Euros would see Belgium eliminated by the eventual champions again, with Italy winning 2-1 in another tightly contested game. By 2020 though, the squad had already started to deteriorate, with their leader Vincent Kompany not representing the team at the tournament. They shrank from a team of attacking flair to a defensive counter-attacking unit, worried about their frailties in the backline, and Martinez faced widescale criticism for a lack of versatility and imagination after this perceived failure.
Throughout the decade, Belgium had shown impressive form within qualification, and it was no different coming into the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Belgium had been ranked within the top three teams in the world for most of their golden generation, and were seen as the second-best team in the world. However, people had started to notice a pattern; Belgium, a team once full of promising young talent, had become old.
With this age came some experience, but this experience failed to get them past the biggest hurdles on the biggest stages. By this winter’s World Cup, many believed that players such as Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were on a steep decline, while players who had been instrumental in 2018 such as Fellaini and Kompany were far in the past.
There had been hope with young talents such as Jeremy Doku and Charles De Ketelaere, but they were often not given opportunities as Martinez favoured the old guard leading to an ageing, disjointed squad. Belgium would lose to the Netherlands 4-1 in the summer of 2022, and this disappointing form seemed to carry through into the tournament.
Belgium came within a whisker of being one of the dominant teams of the 2010s
Kevin De Bruyne didn’t help things when he declared that the squad was too old to bring home silverware, but this was essentially accurate. The starting 11 that had looked so promising had slowly faded, and the players coming in weren’t given an opportunity to adjust. The squad had become less talented and had not yet moved on from the past, and a manger dedicated to less efficient players only exacerbated the problem.
Belgium got knocked out of the 2022 World Cup group stages after a very poor win against Canada, a defeat against Morocco, and a limp draw against Croatia. Instead of fighting to retain the hopes of the golden generation, Belgium fell fighting each other.
Belgian publication RTL Sport suggested that De Bruyne, Hazard and Vertonghen had to be separated after the defeat to Morocco, with Vertonghen “hitting back” at his midfielder in the press. He suggested that the Belgian attack was “too old” to succeed in response to the Manchester City midfielder. The Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois also doesn’t speak to De Bruyne due to personal reasons, while Eden Hazard doesn’t talk to Leandro Trossard, and Romelu Lukaku is said to have had a falling out with former teammate Michy Batshuayi, according to L’Equipe.
The manager did not help things, and it was perhaps unsurprising that after these failures, Roberto Martinez left his post as Belgium manager after six years in the hot seat.
Belgian football is at a cross roads. At the end of their golden generation and their most successful manager, they have big decisions to make about the direction of their next era. It is very unlikely that the core of Belgium’s golden generation will have another shot at glory with many of the squad on the brink of retirement, and many talented players unlikely to represent their country into their late 30s. This means that it is very unlikely that Belgium will reach the latter stages of football’s biggest competition for years to come.
However, all hope is not lost for the people of Belgium. Players like Doku and De Ketelaere may not ever reach the levels of their golden generation, but may mean that the squad of the 2020s is ahead of Belgium’s regular World Cup positions. The players of this era can inspire generations to come, and football, if one thing, is unpredictable. If Belgium can produce one generation, however unlikely it is, who’s to say they can’t have another?
Time will tell whether Belgium missed their greatest chance at silverware, and the decisions made at this moment and in the decade prior may be agonised over for years to come. Football is a game of the finest of margins, whether it be a header from a corner or a shock against Wales, Belgium came within a whisker of being one of the dominant teams of the 2010s, and potentially a single managerial decision could have changed that fate.