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​Missing the Moment: Will Belgium Be the Latest Country to Squander its 'Golden Generation'?

After losing their opening game of Euro 2016 to Italy, the anxiety is setting in for Belgium. Could 'Les Diables Rouges' be the next in a long line of nations to not get the best out of their most talented group of players?
Daniel Dal Zennaro/EPA

Speaking ahead of Belgium's Euro 2016 campaign, Eden Hazard said his team would need to win the competition if they were to live up to their tag as the nation's 'golden generation'. In doing so, the Chelsea star stumbled upon the crux of the semantic problem with this term, which has been a harbinger of failure for so many that have gone before them – namely, pre-empting a side's greatness before they've achieved anything of note.


If ever there was a country to play the villain, stifling and ultimately defeating a team of glamorous young pretenders, it was Italy. So it came to pass on Monday evening in Lyon, when an Azzurri side that people who know their pasta called the worst in years beat Belgium 2-0.

Given the generous group stage system that will see 16 of 24 teams progress, most would still back Belgium to make it through to the knockout phase. Even so, the manner of their defeat against the Italians was so underwhelming that something of a post-mortem is already taking place, and anxiety is setting in over whether theirs could be the next in a long line of nations to not get the best out of their most talented group of players.

Nobody doubts that this Belgian side is, on paper at least, one of the best they've ever had. Like the class of the eighties – who lost to West Germany in the final of the 1980 European Championships and came fourth at the 1986 World Cup – they are more than capable of going deep into an international tournament, perhaps even winning it.

One of the most common accusations levelled at this generation, however, is that the abundance of Premier League players in the squad leads to them being overrated by many – especially on British shores. By contrast, Italy were largely unfancied, at least until the half-time whistle blew at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, but delivered what was arguably the most impressive performance from any team at the competition so far.


Perhaps most obviously, the match served as a timely reminder of the fact that – despite our increasing fetishisation of the individual – football is, and always will be, a team sport. Romelu Lukaku's 'Goals, Skills and Assists' videos might rack up the hits on YouTube, but he was completely shut out by the resolutely un-Vineable Juventus quartet of Buffon, Bonnucci, Chiellini and Barzagli. The unfolding narrative couldn't have been more obvious if it had jumped out of the TV and booted a Euro 2016 'Beau Jeu' matchball directly between your eyes. Even as the Belgian supporters roused themselves when their team won corner after corner, it was clear they weren't going to break down the Italian backline. The addition of a second goal in injury time lent the match a 'smash and grab' feel, but in reality that would do a disservice to an Italian side who completely showed up their opponents.

Lethal in the league, Lukaku was ineffectual against Italy // Mast Irham/EPA

In the eyes of many, a major obstacle to success is manager Marc Wilmots. The jury is very much out on the 47-year-old former international, though he's largely been credited with uniting a country often split along linguistic and ethnic lines, something that has divided its national team in the past. I can't lay claim to an extensive knowledge of Belgian socio-political affairs, but from a purely footballing point of view it's hard to shake the feeling that the man in the street could get as much out of this set of players as Wilmots has. Les Diables Rouges' rigid style of play is much maligned back home and, while their manager's pragmatic rhetoric might appease some when they're grinding out the narrow wins they achieved in the group stage of World Cup 2014, it will wear thin if style and substance continue to prove evasive.


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The way Wilmots sets up his side is equal parts predictable and baffling. The 4-2-3-1 he employs to squeeze in Belgium's star players is reminiscent of something your little brother might try on FIFA, but his insistence on accommodating Marouane Fellaini is pretty left field. The full-back position is Belgium's only real weak spot, so you could forgive him for asking Jan Vertonghen to fill one of those berths, but in doing so he's breaking up the Premier League's best central defensive partnership. The Fellaini issue continues to provide more questions than answers and makes you wonder whether a low-rent version of the Balotelli conundrum – the idea that managers kept signing the striker in the mistaken belief that they could be the one to finally unlock his potential – is at play here. Wilmots called out Louis van Gaal for supposedly misusing the midfielder/forward/battering-ram (delete as you see fit) earlier in the year, and his decision to move Kevin de Bruyne wide to play Fellaini in his 'best' position feels like something of a vanity project, despite his impressive goalscoring record in qualifying.

The caveat to all of this, of course, is that Belgium still have time on their side, both in this tournament and the long-term. Even if they don't live up to expectations this time around the core of their squad, with the possible exception of injured skipper Vincent Kompany, are young enough to have another go at World Cup 2018.


Boss Marc Wilmots needs a good showing this summer to still be around in 2018 // CJ Gunther/EPA

But it's the familiarity of their shortcomings that cause the most concern: the ponderous tempo, predictable substitutions and lack of intent, all of which combine to foster a feeling that the team isn't as good as it could or indeed should be. After the Italy match, Wilmots criticised Antonio Conte's men for "counter-attacking and not playing real football", making him a serious rival to Cristiano Ronaldo for the Euro 2016 sour grapes award. Once the dust had settled though, Wilmots would have been wise to appreciate the soon-to-be Chelsea manager's approach. Conte's gameplan saw the ends justify the means, something he himself has advocated in the past.

The omens aren't entirely negative. While some 'golden generations' have failed to deliver and disappeared entirely – see England – others such as Spain and the Ivory Coast have eventually risen to the occasion. Admittedly in the latter's case it took them several attempts to win the Africa Cup of Nations, and it helps when you get a crack at it every two years, but nevertheless there is a precedent.

But, if they continue to underwhelm, this Belgium side may not even be fondly remembered as a golden generation of cult heroes – one that gave its all but couldn't quite go the distance. England's Euro '96 side may not have won a thing, but they are fast setting into icon status for their heroics in that tournament. By contrast, the England of Beckham-Gerrard-Lampard et al is remembered for its failures. The current Belgium squad look more like falling into the latter bracket.

There is still time. Much has been made of the lack of a single outstanding team at this year's tournament; at the time of writing, it's fair to say that no one has stood out from the crowd. As such, now is as good a time as any for Belgium to step up and make a real mark on Euro 2016. The early signs, however, aren't promising. If they want to avoid the moment passing them by, they'll need nothing less than a victory from Saturday's match against Ireland.