FOR a nation of just 11.5 million people, Belgium’s creation of a so-called “golden generation” of footballers was extraordinary. But the problem with a country suddenly coming across a team of excellent players is that too often it is forgotten that opponents also have good line-ups. While a golden crop might be the best a particular nation has nurtured, that doesn’t mean they will be good enough to be successful on the bigger stage.
Endless qualifying tournaments against makeweights serve their purpose, but they don’t always equip a national team for the serious stuff. Building long lists of unbeaten games involving the likes of San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan may be good for the confidence, but it is against the seeded and almost seeded that results count. England, for example, were long considered the “king of friendlies” and a shoo-in for qualification, misleading parameters of success when it came to the full-blooded encounters with the top countries. Ambition can be raised to an unrealistic level.
That’s not to say Belgium are not worthy of praise, or their position at the top of the FIFA and Elo rankings. They have had, for a few years, a truly outstanding squad of players, but the fear must be that a once-in-a-lifetime group may pass into history without any sort of formal recognition. In 2016, Wales upset their plans, in 2018 France edged them out of the World Cup and now a resurgent Italy have cast them adrift at the quarter-final stage. So easily, the dreams can fade and redemption is often only attainable in a couple of years. This time, if Belgium manage to keep the core of their team together, they will have a chance in Qatar in 2022.
Like the Netherlands in the 1970s, it is unlikely Belgium will be able to replicate the strength of their recent squads very easily. The period between 2016 and 2021 has been their time, or at least it should have been. Their team represented one of the best European national teams of recent times, capable of exquisite football but ultimately, unable to last the pace in a tournament. They still have some of the most talented players around, but Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, glittering stars of the past five years, are both injury prone, and in Hazard’s case, he has stumbled upon an uncomfortable time at Real Madrid where he could easily fall out of favour. De Bruyne remains a brilliant example of the modern player, but he is 29 now. Hazard, whose game relied on agility and deception, has found himself watching his sibling, Thorgan, from the sidelines, a remarkable change of fortune from the days when the younger Hazard was very much in his brother’s shadow.
Age is the one aspect of football that cannot be controlled or ignored. Belgium’s squad is the second oldest in Euro 2020, coming in at 29.1 years compared to Sweden’s 29.2 -England, who may yet win the competition, have an average age of 25.2 – that’s almost four years younger. Experience, of course, is a key part of any successful squad, but in summer heat and after a long campaign, how much energy do players approaching their mid-30s have? Belgium have 10 players over 30 in their Euro 2020 squad and another eight between 28 and 29. Furthermore, they have only two below 25. This is very much about today and not tomorrow.
The problem is, today didn’t quite work out, so can Belgium expect their 30-something club to improve? Surely, their best days are behind them? David Cameron, the hapless former UK Prime Minister, on leaving Downing Street following the calamitous Brexit vote, commented, “I was the future once”, sadly, Belgium are probably in that same position, a team with great prospects behind them.
The question is, what does the future look like now? Their under-21 team failed to qualify for the Euros this year and their under-19s, for example, are little more than average. Yet Belgium remains a top exporter of talent and is one of the biggest providers of talent to the Premier League. At the same time, the average top-flight Belgian club’s squad comprises almost 60% expatriates.
The current Belgium squad’s composition underlines how accustomed players are to plying their trade elsewhere. There are 20 clubs represented in the Euro 2020 squad and nine countries. Unsurprisingly, England provides 10 of the squad and the rest are spread across the other big five leagues, Japan, Turkey, Portugal and Belgium. Only two came from the Belgian domestic league, both from Bruges.
What next then, for coach Roberto Martinez? His record is superb, a win rate of 77% and over the past five years, just four defeats and 43 wins in 55 games. The defeats since 2017 have included the semi-final of the World Cup in 2018 (France 0-1) and the quarter-final of Euro 2020 against Italy (1-2). It’s hardly epic failure – some national teams would die for such a record – but expectation was high. Despite the current team being the culmination of the 20-year transformation of Belgian football, they know there’s no guarantee they will be able to maintain their momentum, at least not in the short-to-medium term.
Martinez, rightly, refused to be drawn on his future after losing to Italy, but gave due credit to his players: “There is real pride and understanding that these players did everything they could to try to get what we wanted. Unfortunately, we faced a very good team and the small margins went with them. That happens in football.”
The Belgian football authorities will be only too aware the red devils failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, as well as three consecutive Euros between 2004 and 2012. It may be just a little unreasonable to expect continuity for such a small nation, but in the meantime, it might be appropriate to recall the quality of football Belgium brought to the international stage over the past few years. Sometimes, the best teams do not get the rewards they deserve.