It's the 80th minute. Belgium are a goal down to France in the semi-finals of the World Cup. Their captain Eden Hazard latches on to a ball on the left side of the field. There is a sense of expectation – Hazard has arguably been the player of the tournament so far, impressing with his quick-feet and direct play. He drops his shoulders and in a series of quick, gravity-defying moves, the diminutive forward outfoxes a bunch of French footballers in his run towards the goal including Les Blues' star-of-the-night Paul Pogba.
He makes a quick change in direction, turning with the ball glued to the outside of his foot, to open up an angle, only to be brought down by his Chelsea teammate and French forward Olivier Giroud. But to the bemusement of the Belgium team and their supporters, the referee waves off the appeal and indicates Hazard to get up. The captain looks at the referee, distraught, partly in pain, but mostly due to frustration. Hazard, lying on the field clutching his leg, probably realised it was going to be that kind of night for his team – where you give it all and yet come short.
The play encapsulated Belgium's tournament. The Red Devils walked into the tournament as outside favourites. Their Golden Generation of footballers had sizzled in club-level football for a few years now, but the team had not really achieved great heights in the international arena. There was an air of expectation, especially after their dominant performances in the qualification stages. The team thrilled in the tournament, scoring the most number of goals, winning all their games and even knocking out bookies' favourite Brazil in the quarter-final. But much like Hazard's play, the World Cup seemed one hurdle too many for the Belgian stars, with the team falling short in the semi-final stage.
Sunset for Belgium's Golden Generation?
After a heroic comeback victory against Japan and a tactical masterclass against Brazil, hopes on the Belgium team had risen exponentially. According to many, this was Belgium's golden generation's golden hour – that one hour of the day when the sun is setting and the world is at its prettiest. Unfortunately for Belgium, the team couldn't deliver at its peak and the window of opportunity to win a major trophy and enter the history books is now fast diminishing. Euro 2020 is still a realistic target for a team with a current average age of 27.6 but Qatar 2022 will be a stretch for a nation such as Belgium, where the flow of talent isn’t constant.
While it is too early to hit the panic button, there seems to be a drought at the footballer production factory. France, for example, could afford to not pick Kingsley Coman (22 years old), Adrien Rabiot (23), Lucas Digne (24) and Aymeric Laporte (24) – all valuable players for their clubs – and yet reach the finals of the World Cup with the youngest team in the tournament.
The defensive trio of Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, and Vincent Kompany will all be past their prime in 2022. While Dedryck Boyata seemed to grow in stature as the tournament progressed, he didn't look anywhere near ominous as the trio or Thomas Vermaelen in their best years. Similarly, in the attack, none among Youri Tielemans, Adnan Januzaj, Michy Batshuayi and Thorgan Hazard (players under 25) showed enough to suggest they will be ready to displace the current set of players one day. Not one new star emerged out of the World Cup for Belgium.
The current set of players are products of a progressive move by the Belgian Football Association after getting knocked out in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup in France. Later called the “La vision de formation de l’URBSFA”, the Belgian FA under former player Michel Sablon, made a series of infrastructural and tactical changes to ensure their upcoming footballers had all the support they required. A core group of players who defeated Brazil in the quarter-final are products of this vision from the Belgian football federation — Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Nacer Chadli — while the likes of Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen, who left to other countries for their football education, where also identified in the national scouting programs.
But with Belgium establishing themselves as a football hub for attractive footballers, scouts and player agents came looking for young footballers. The national talent programs are still relevant but with players opting to move abroad at a relatively young age, they often do not receive all the benefits the national programs were tailored to give. Being a small country with a football league that can hardly challenge the big guns in Europe, the players can't be blamed for having greater ambitions. It is up to the decision-makers of Belgium football to rise to the challenge and design a way where the player education is completed even if they switch to other leagues at a young age.
In 1998 it was a dull, less-impressive exit in the group stages that sparked a change in Belgium's approach to football. While the exit in 2018 was the polar opposite – losing to a French team in the semi-final after dominating possession and winning fans with attractive football – it should force the Belgian association to come up with another radical plan to ensure the talent production is not stunted.
Belgium will still contest a redundant spectacle of the third-place match on Saturday, after which the players will head on holidays to recharge. For the work-force behind the team, this should mark the beginning of a season of change, where they discover ways to successfully pass the mantle from the golden generation to a younger, talented team.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jul 11, 2018 18:08:01 IST