After an exhilarating day of World Cup action, Belgium have been knocked out of the tournament in the group stage after failing to beat Croatia.
And that signifies the end of the so-called Belgian ‘Golden Generation’.
To be fair, calling their current squad a ‘Golden Generation’ is a bit of a stretch – aside from Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne, how many genuinely world-class players do they have?
However, they have enjoyed an incredible wealth of talent over the past few years.
Not long ago, the likes of Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku were worth nine figures. Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen were among the Premier League’s best centre-backs.
Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Dries Mertens, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Thomas Meunier, Yannick Carrasco – it seemed as if all they were missing was a left-back.
There was a squad there capable of winning major honours. And yet, they have remained without silverware. Now, the inquest begins as to how this was allowed to happen.
People have been very quick to point the finger at the managers. Should this group of players have been put in the hands of Marc Wilmots (2012-2016) and Roberto Martinez (2016-2022), two coaches with no experience at the top level?
Perhaps not, but it’s very easy to blame the manager in a situation like this. Here are their results at major tournaments from the 2014 World Cup to the 2020 European Championships.
World Cup 2014
Belgium 2-1 Algeria
Belgium 1-0 Russia
South Korea 0-1 Belgium
Belgium 2-1 USA (AET)
Argentina 1-0 Belgium
Belgium 0-2 Italy
Belgium 3-0 Republic of Ireland
Sweden 0-1 Belgium
Hungary 0-4 Belgium
Wales 3-1 Belgium
World Cup 2018
Belgium 3-0 Panama
Belgium 5-2 Tunisia
England 0-1 Belgium
Belgium 3-2 Japan
Brazil 1-2 Belgium
France 1-0 Belgium
Belgium 2-0 England
Belgium 3-0 Russia
Denmark 1-2 Belgium
Finland 0-2 Belgium
Belgium 1-0 Portugal
Belgium 1-2 Italy
This comes to a win ratio of 78%, emerging victorious from 17 ties out of 22. Meanwhile, they scored 40 goals in these fixtures and conceded just 17.
In those same four tournaments, France had a win ratio of 65%, scoring 44 while conceding 20. This suggests that they were playing roughly at the same level as the world’s best teams.
The Wales defeat is the obvious outlier and was a significant disappointment. But aside from that, have they ever failed to win a game they were expected to win?
Furthermore, two of their five losses came against the eventual champions and another against a finalist.
So what was the issue? Well, a large part of it comes down to luck. After beating a very strong Brazil side in 2018, they came up against an even stronger France.
And it was a tight game, losing 1-0 due to a goal from a set-piece. There’s no shame in that, is there?
And, had they edged it, you would have fancied the Red Devils to beat Croatia in the final.
This is the problem with the ‘Golden Generation’ discourse. Yes, it was Belgium’s best-ever selection of players, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they had the best squad at the tournament.
As a team, they peaked in 2018, but did they have a better squad than France? Probably not.
International tournaments are not easy to win. There are several top teams who go into it eyeing up the trophy, but only one can come away with the prize. One underwhelming performance and it’s all over.
It’s been a frustrating decade for Belgium, and they probably won’t get a better shot at silverware anytime soon. But to call it a wasted generation is a huge oversimplification.
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