Belgium’s golden generation face last stand at World Cup

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Belgium’s “golden generation” have one more chance to shed their reputation as serial underachievers after Kevin De Bruyne signalled the end of an era by admitting the World Cup in Qatar is likely to be his last.

Boasting a star-studded line-up featuring De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, Belgium will be ranked as one of the favourites when the tournament gets underway on November 20.

Yet Belgium have struggled to live up to the hype in the decade since their talented crop burst onto the international stage with a revelatory 4-2 win over the Netherlands in 2012.

At the 2014 World Cup, Belgium bowed out against Argentina in the quarter-finals.

Four years later they lost to France in the World Cup semi-finals in what so far rates as the best run of an era that promised so much for the Red Devils.

For a team regarded as potential title winners, those exits and a pair of European Championship quarter-final defeats in 2016 and 2020 were not rewarding enough, leading to Belgium being labelled underachievers.

Former Belgium coach George Leekens questioned the mentality of Roberto Martinez’s side in a scathing assessment of their failure to win a trophy.

“Without a trophy, we climbed to first place in the FIFA rankings. But this first rank means nothing,” Leekens said.

“When you don’t dare to do things, nothing is with you. This mentality and this will to win does not exist in Martinez’s group.”

With the vast majority of Belgium’s stars now in their 30s, this World Cup looks increasingly certain to be the generation’s last stand.

Emerging talents Lois Openda, 22, Charles De Ketelaere, 21, and Amadou Onana, 21, offer hope for a bright Belgium future.

But De Bruyne, Hazard, Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Alex Witsel and Dries Mertens will be retired or well past their best by the next World Cup in 2026.

– ‘We haven’t won anything’ –

Hazard, Belgium’s captain since 2015, acknowledges his team face a defining moment when they head to Qatar.

“There’s always talk of the golden generation but there’s some truth to it. We’ve spent almost 10 years together,” Hazard said.

“Of course, we’ve got an incredible generation of players, but we still haven’t won anything. If we really want to earn that golden generation nickname, I think that’s the one thing we still need to do.”

Martinez, in his sixth year as Belgium boss, will hope De Bruyne’s realisation that he may not play in another World Cup adds a sense of urgency to the rest of the squad’s 30-somethings.

The Manchester City midfielder will bring his family to the Gulf state for Belgium’s Group F games against Canada, Morocco and Croatia as he wants his children to see him play in the World Cup at least once.

“My family are going over for the group stages. I am obviously 31 and I don’t know what will happen in four years. This is the first time my kids can come to the World Cup,” De Bruyne said.

“That is why they are coming. It will be special, an event I don’t want them to miss. They are six, four and two. The eldest two of them follow the football a bit but the daughter, not really, but she can go and enjoy the sun and play in the pool.

“I’m excited. It will be my third one and it is always special. These events are great as everyone is watching it. It is big but there is no point to stress about it.”

With Belgium widely admired for their commitment to an attacking gameplan, De Bruyne’s family won’t be the only ones hoping Martinez’s men finally live up to their potential in Qatar.


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