Belgium’s golden generation are running out of chances

BRUSSEL, BELGIUM - JUNE 6: Romelu Lukaku of Belgium celebrates 1-0 with Eden Hazard of Belgium during the International Friendly match between Belgium v Egypt at the Koning Boudewijnstadion on June 6, 2018 in Brussel Belgium (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)
BRUSSEL, BELGIUM - JUNE 6: Romelu Lukaku of Belgium celebrates 1-0 with Eden Hazard of Belgium during the International Friendly match between Belgium v Egypt at the Koning Boudewijnstadion on June 6, 2018 in Brussel Belgium (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

Belgium will send their most talented team ever to the World Cup this summer, but can they finally live up to their potential?

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that every golden generation is doomed to fail. Well, except for Spain’s. And Germany’s. Ok, let’s try that again: It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that the golden generation label is far more trouble than it’s worth. Just ask Belgium, in possession of the finest collection of players the country has ever produced, and still in want of any meaningful success at a major tournament. Russia may very well be their last chance to make an impression on the global stage.

What would success be for Belgium, what would a good tournament look like? While they’re certainly talented — such a popular dark-horse pick they no longer qualify as a dark horse — it would be a stretch to argue they have a better squad than Germany, Spain, Brazil or France. That suggests a run to the quarters, the same stage they exited the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016, is the minimum requirement. Anything more is very likely to require a win against one of the four favorites. Are they good enough?

They’re not not good enough, but it’s perhaps worth pointing out the fact you’ve heard of a player doesn’t automatically make that player good, and Belgium have suffered, expectations-wise, from the over-exposure so many of their stars get by playing in the Premier League. Of the 23 players Roberto Martinez is taking to Russia, 11 play in the English top flight, and as many as eight of them could make the starting XI. And of course Martinez himself made his name as a manager in England.

All this recognizable talent hasn’t much helped them in the past. They struggled to find any attacking groove in Brazil four years ago, before losing to the first good opponent they faced, Argentina, in the quarters. Euro 2016 was even more troubling. They lost to Italy in their opening match, recovered with wins against Ireland and Sweden, thrashed Hungary in the round of 16 and then crashed out to Wales in the last eight. The easiest thing to do, which is what everyone did, was to blame the manager, Marc Wilmots, who was fired after the tournament.

The last obstacle to the full realization of the undeniable talent of Belgium’s golden generation seemed to have been removed. Then they hired Martinez, whose tenure at Everton had not long previous been summarized by Romelu Lukaku thusly: “When things are broken between the manager and players, it becomes difficult.” The appointment raised eyebrows, but Martinez is in some ways a natural fit — because he’s a manager who will give Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, et al the freedom they need, but also because he, too, is something of an underachiever.

This tag is slightly unfair to Martinez, as it is to the players. There are, if you’re willing to look for them, reasons to believe this time will be different. For one, as easy as it is to make fun of Martinez for the mystifying post-match optimism that defined the death throes of his tenure at Goodison Park, he’s one of the most accomplished managers in the tournament. That might say a lot more about the standard of international management than it does about Martinez, but the point remains.

Martinez was often ridiculed as a sort of tactical novice during his time in the Premier League, either too idealistic or too dimwitted to realize sometimes it’s important to defend as well as attack. But his work at Wigan, who lasted longer in the top flight than anyone expected (and won an FA Cup) by playing soccer befitting a much better team, was impressive, and while his Everton tenure turned ugly fast following a strong first season, they also played some of the most exciting stuff in the country when they were at their best.

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The main reason for optimism is much simpler: The players are better than they used to be. Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens are coming off the best seasons of their careers. Lukaku’s first year at Manchester United was ideal preparation, vis-a-vis handling pressure, for a major tournament. Eden Hazard’s breakout season was 2014-15, the year after the last World Cup, and Euro 2016 followed his strange, Jose Mourinho-inspired mulligan of 2015-16. He’s been arguably the best player in the Premier League in the two years since. Everyone else is older, wiser, more battle-tested.

And the 3-4-3 Martinez uses seems to be a better fit for the players than the 4-2-3-1 Wilmots preferred. Successful qualifying campaigns are notoriously bad indicators of success in major tournaments, but it can’t be a bad thing Belgium won nine and drew one of their 10 games, scoring 43 goals, the joint most (with Germany) of any team in UEFA qualifying. The concerns about Martinez’s ability to organize a defense will persist, especially in light of Vincent Kompany’s ongoing fitness issues, but the potential is undeniable.

Then again, this is exactly how golden generations are supposed to work, defined not by what they do, but by what they could do, if only they might, as the cliche has it, peak at the right time. This is the great tease of the international game, where meaningful matches are spread just far enough apart to give fans the opportunity to forget, to begin to hope again. Will Belgium’s golden generation finally fulfill their promise in Russia? That’s the wrong question. The right question is: Could they? The answer, of course, is yes. A wicked, tantalizing yes.