Ben Crome ponders the ‘Golden Generation’
Belgium, it seems, have become everybody’s favourite dark horse. After moving to the top of their World Cup qualification group with wins over Serbia and Scotland, some odds on Belgium to win the competition in 2014 have fallen to 20-1, roughly on a par with England, France, and Italy. Not bad for a team which hasn’t qualified for a tournament for over a decade.
To thank for the emergence of the Red Devils as a footballing force are not one, but two, ‘golden generations’. Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini are among eleven under-21 European semi-finalists of 2007 in Marc Wilmots’s current set-up. Also in 2007, Belgium’s under-17s, including Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke, reached a European semi-final, losing on penalties to Spain.
These youth-team graduates are now entering their prime and gelling as a unit, leading to inevitable comparisons with the team of 1986, when Enzo Scifo inspired Belgium to the semi-finals of the World Cup. Like Scifo, many of the current squad are sons of immigrants, meaning that past divisions between French- and Dutch-speaking players have largely subsided.
Belgium will have to defeat the perception, though, that much-hyped golden generations often fail to fulfil expectations. We’re all familiar with the deficiencies of the England sides of the mid-2000s, and a Portugal team featuring Luís Figo, Rui Costa, and Cristiano Ronaldo failed to win Euro 2004 on home soil despite dominating the final against Greece.
Since 1986, fifteen European countries have reached World Cup or European Championship semi-finals; only six, however, have done so more than twice. Powerful countries tend to monopolise international success. Belgium probably won’t get many chances to win something, so the pressure is on Wilmots to get the most out of this cohort in Brazil.
There is also the question of how ‘golden’ this generation really is. Vincent Kompany is one of Europe’s finest centre-backs, and Hazard may well be worth the £32 million Chelsea paid for him, but few of their squad play for genuinely top-level clubs. Romelu Lukaku, supposedly the answer to the problem centre-forward position, is struggling to get a game for West Bromwich Albion. No more than two or three Belgians would be first choice for their country if they were Spanish or German.
But that Belgium are being compared with Spain or Germany is a mark of their recent progress; in the last set of World Cup qualifiers, they lost to Estonia and Armenia. Primed for automatic qualification to Brazil, Belgium will entertain spectators for some years to come. For their own fans, the quest to emulate the achievements of ’86 will be stressful and perhaps fruitless, but also potentially inspirational.
PHOTO// BEN SUTHERLAND