• 06 Apr - 12 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Sports

As a fan of the beautiful game, here’s a conundrum wrapped in the heartache and glory of football lore: Which is the greatest team never to have lifted the World Cup trophy? For many seasoned fans, the answer harks back to an era of unparalleled artistry on the pitch, the Brazil squad of 1982 – a team that danced to the rhythm of the samba, their play a symphony of grace, flair, and unfulfilled destiny. Yet, pose this question to the modern aficionado, a disciple of the game’s contemporary sagas, and you’ll hear a different tale. The narrative shifts to Belgium’s golden generation of 2018, a squad brimming with talent, from wizards of the midfield to sovereigns of the strike, who captured the imagination of the world. They played with a harmony and ambition that transcended their era, etching their names in the annals of the game not for the titles they claimed, but for the beauty and spirit they brought to the world’s stage. This is the essence of football: a tale of triumphs and trials, of heroes known for their victories and legends remembered for their dreams.

Considering the rosters of national football teams, it’s evident to any avid fan that Belgium boasts one of the most formidable squads worldwide, a status they’ve held for quite some time. However, when it comes to Silverware triumphs, Belgium’s trophy cabinet remains barren on the international stage. Despite being dubbed “The Golden Generation” and comprising a constellation of star players, Belgium’s accolades pale in comparison. Their lone tangible achievement thus far stands as the third-place finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Nonetheless, behind the scenes, Belgium underwent substantial reforms and poured investments into nurturing this stellar generation of players, even if their aspirations have yet to fully materialize.

Build Up To Golden Generation
Following Belgium’s exit from the 2002 FIFA World Cup at the hands of eventual champions Brazil in the round of 16, a period of profound change swept over the national football team. Seasoned veterans bid farewell to their jerseys, signaling the need for a rejuvenation of the squad. In the ensuing years, numerous fresh faces were ushered into the team, yet none managed to secure a permanent place or significantly bolster Belgium’s chances of success. Consequently, the team faltered, failing to qualify for both the UEFA EURO 2004 and the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

The catalyst for transformation emerged with the appointment of Michel Sablon as Belgian Football Director in 2006. Armed with a comprehensive strategy, Sablon embarked on reshaping the trajectory of the national team. The initial step involved conducting extensive research, drawing insights from youth development programs in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. A paradigm shift ensued, as football academies adopted a scientific approach, shifting their focus from mere victories to the holistic development of young talent.

Implementing these reforms across the nation’s football landscape posed formidable challenges. Sablon and his team weathered a storm of criticism, yet their perseverance bore fruit as tangible results began to emerge. Notably, the Belgium U-21 National Football Team, boasting talents like Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin Mirallas, and Anthony Vanden Borre, showcased their potential on the global stage, securing a fourth-place finish in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Although a defeat to Nigeria in the semifinals stung, their journey signaled a promising shift in Belgian football’s fortunes.

Devils Flaunt Their Horns
In 2008, the winds of change began to sweep through Belgian football as key players from the national team embarked on journeys to prestigious leagues, marking the onset of an era. Vincent Kompany, a name that would become synonymous with Manchester City legend.

Marouane Fellaini followed suit, leaving Standard Liège for Everton in the same year, while Thomas Vermaelen made his move to Arsenal from Ajax in 2009. By the time the 2014 FIFA World Cup European Qualifications rolled around, Belgium’s squad was brimming with talent, poised for their first significant test. The team, featuring stars such as Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, Kevin De Bruyne, Steven Defour, and Romelu Lukaku, sailed through the qualifiers, topping Group A without suffering a single defeat.

This Golden Generation, while not capturing glory in their first major international outing, showcased their mettle by reaching the quarterfinals. However, their journey was halted by a Lionel Messi-led Argentina, who edged them out with a 1-0 victory in the semifinals. Despite this setback, Belgium’s ascent in the world of football was undeniable, climbing to the fourth spot in the FIFA World Rankings in 2014. By 2015, they had etched their name in history by reaching the top spot in the rankings for the first time, signaling the rise of a new football powerhouse.

The Trident In Full Swing
Having carved out a niche for themselves on the global stage, Belgium was primed for the challenge at UEFA EURO 2016. They breezed through the qualifiers, securing a spot in the group stage and progressed to the knockouts. A commanding 4-0 victory over Hungary in the round of 16 set the stage for what appeared to be a manageable quarterfinal clash with Wales. However, Wales delivered a stunning upset, eliminating Belgium with a 3-1 victory.

The disappointment of EURO 2016 only fueled Belgium’s ambition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. With a squad in its prime, boasting some of the world’s most prized talents like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku, the Red Devils were a force to be reckoned with. They sailed through the group stage and secured a nail-biting 3-2 victory over Japan in the round of 16. Belgium then triumphed over Brazil with a 2-1 win in the quarterfinals, but their journey was halted by France, a team with its own Golden Generation, in a narrow 1-0 defeat. France went on to clinch the World Cup.

Looking ahead to the 2020 European Championship, the Red devils effortlessly progressed through the group stage. They edged out the then-champions Portugal with a 1-0 victory in the round of 16. However, Italy, the eventual tournament winners, bested Belgium with a 2-1 victory in the quarterfinals, ending their campaign.

In the same year, the UEFA Nations League presented another opening, despite dominating their group with five wins in six matches. Facing France in the semifinals, victory seemed within reach, but in a twist of fate reminiscent of previous encounters, France emerged victorious with a 3-2 win, later defeating Spain to lift the trophy, leaving Belgium once again on the cusp of greatness but without the coveted prize.

Talisman Hangs His Boots
In the hushed aftermath of his 126th and final appearance for Belgium, Eden Hazard absorbed the atmosphere of the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, a vista dotted with too many farewells. His team, once celebrated as the bronze victors of the World Cup, had just faced an unexpected exit in the group stage of Qatar 2022. Hazard, the luminary of Belgian football, was afforded a mere three minutes from the bench in a desperate bid to salvage their campaign.

The impasse remained unbroken, and as the final whistle echoed, the air was thick with the anticipation of parting. It marked the conclusion of an era epitomized by Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, the defensive stalwarts whose partnership spanned over a decade, complemented by the presence of Thibaut Courtois, the imposing figure in goal, and Axel Witsel, the midfield guardian.

Eden Hazard's retirement from professional football at the tender age of 32 signals the end of an illustrious chapter in Belgian football history, an era graced with an extraordinary pool of talent within a single generation. Hazard's departure, following a tenure marred by injuries and diminished impact at Real Madrid, not only marks the loss of one of football's most enchanting talents but also signifies a poignant moment of reflection for Belgian football and its aficionados.

Forecast For The Future
In the twilight of Belgium’s Golden Generation, with its luminaries now navigating the autumn of their careers, the Red Devils remain a formidable force, brimming with untapped potential. The squad is invigorated by players like Youri Tielemans and Timothy Castagne, who are hitting their stride, and buoyed by the emergence of bright talents such as Charles De Ketelaere and Yari Verschaeren. Despite the sting of their departure from the World Cup’s group stage in Qatar, the horizon glimmers with promise for Belgium’s next cadre of football stars.

This transition comes in the wake of Belgium’s unexpected early exit from the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, compounded by the departure of Coach Roberto Martinez. While some might perceive chaos, a closer look reveals the seeds of renewal. The celebrated Golden Generation, which dazzled the world and came tantalizingly close to the pinnacle of international football, now passes the torch.

As the next generation steps into the limelight, they inherit not just the aspirations of a nation but also the lessons of their predecessors. Young talents like Charles de Ketelaere, Amadou Onana, Jeremy Doku, and Lois Openda gained invaluable experience in Qatar, a crucible that hastens the maturation of emerging stars.

These young players, thrust into the high stakes of World Cup competition, offered glimpses of Belgium’s future. Their performances, while not yet heralding a new golden age, suggest that the foundations for sustained excellence remain strong. Vertonghen, a stalwart of the previous generation, sees in these youngsters the promise of continued success for Belgian football.

Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]