In football, there are few terms that heap as much expectation and pressure as the term “golden generation” does. As one can guess, most of the time they are unfulfilled, leaving both players and fans with a great deal of disappointment.
This term was first used for the Luis Figo led band of exceptionally gifted teenage Portuguese footballers who won two FIFA Youth Championships. The team was expected to challenge for major international honours around the turn of the century as the members of the generation matured, but there were spectacular lows to go along with the commendable highs — failure to qualify for the 1998 World Cup and inability to make it out of the group stages in 2002 come to mind. On the other hand, they made the semis in Euro 2000 and World Cup 2006 (losing to France both times). What must particularly rankle them is the loss at home against an ultra-defensive Greece in the 2004 Euros.
But there is a consolation at the end of this — they were not England’s Golden Generation.
Touted by the famed English hype machine for more than a decade, England’s club superstars were unable to translate their club performances to the international stage, becoming the unwanted poster boys of failed potential. Tournament after tournament, they flitted from the underwhelming to thoroughly incompetent. Speaking about the negative effects the tag had on the team, Rio Ferdinand said:
“It upped the expectations because people called us the golden generation and people expected us to win silverware. We had the players capable, but never set up in the right way," he said. "[It was a] combination of things. The system was not right. I don't think we played with freedom in an England shirt. We were trying to stop teams all the time.”
Looking at Belgium’s current national team, one cannot help thinking on the lines of the 'golden generation' tag. Chelsea’s Hazard and Courtois, Manchester City’s De Bruyne, United’s Lukaku, Spurs’ Vertonghen and Alderweireld have all played starring roles for their clubs in recent times. Which way will they swing? With World Cup heavyweights falling by the minute, this edition perhaps represents as good a chance as to make a positive headway as any.
But what is more remarkable is how a country with only 34 professional clubs spread over two generations managed to produce such good players. After the embarrassment of Euro 2000, when they, the co-hosts, failed to get out of the group stage, they started adopting the best practices from across the European continent. Led by Michel Sablon, they stuck to a philosophy, standardised tactics and targetted player development. A decade after that embarrassment, several top European leagues are now infested with top quality Belgian players. In 2015, the Belgian National team was ranked number 1 on the FIFA rankings — a culmination of shrewd tactics, gaming the system, and long-term planning.
Standing in their way at the Rostov arena is Japan, Asia’s last remaining representatives. Japan coach Akira Nishino took a massive gamble by resting his key players in their last group stage match against Poland. They also played quite negatively, often playing very safe passes even while they were trailing in the match. In the end, they barely crossed the qualification barrier, needing the fair play system to haul them over the line. But this might pay some dividends as the two other times Japan made it to out of the group stage in 2002 and 2010, they didn’t have enough in the tank to progress beyond Turkey and Paraguay.
Japan are sure to field their strongest lineup against the Belgians. They are also expected to revert to their traditional 4-2-3-1 (they had used a 4-4-2 in their match against the Poles), a formation they favoured against Colombia and Senegal. Attacking midfielders Takashi Inui, Shinji Kagawa and Genki Haraguchi will continue to probe for openings, with former CSKA Moscow and AC Milan veteran forward Keisuke Honda likely to be the first substitution option. By scoring the equaliser against Senegal, Honda became the first Japanese player to score at three World Cup tournaments. He’s played a bit-part role in the World Cup so far, but his experience in previous World Cups and Europe will come in handy in this crucial encounter.
Roberto Martinez enters the knockout tie with some confidence. He also hasn’t been afraid to stamp his brand on the team. His omission of the popular Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad evoked shock. He’s also moved the team away from their traditional 4-3-3 to his favoured 3-4-3 system. They have had a perfect record in the group stages and managed to win 1-0 against England in a battle of the second string teams. The big frontman Romelu Lukaku is in good form, and Eden Hazard seems primed for the challenge. But due to a narrow formation with width provided via the wingbacks, they are susceptible to being stretched in defence. And Japan can be expected to just do that — sit back, be compact and take the attack to the wings to create space in the middle. They also have played against Belgium before, last November, and lost 1-0 courtesy a Romelu Lukaku goal. The Belgian attack, having scored loads of goals against their opponents in the tournament and qualifying, will look to make a real nuisance of themselves against the Japanese backline.
Belgium will also have to guard against complacency and their “flatter to deceive” type of results at the business end of the tournament. The same group of players (under a different manager, Marc Wilmots) tried to shed their “dark horses” pre-tournament tag at the 2016 Euros and the 2014 World Cup but ultimately surrendered tamely to Wales and Argentina. With heavyweights such as Germany and Spain out, Belgium will probably not have such a good chance to make a mark, even though they are in the tougher half of the draw. The winner of this match will get to face Brazil in the quarters, and there is no better time to step up and shed the negativity around the 'golden generation' millstone.
Updated Date: Jul 02, 2018 14:28:13 IST