FIFA World Cup 2018: Of Belgium’s Golden Generation and Scifo’s Prediction
The term ‘Golden Generation’ is often overused in sports, more so in football. And so it seemed, for long, in the case of the current crop of Belgian players, who had flattered to deceive in top international tournaments. But on a balmy Russian evening in Kazan, this precociously talented bunch finally came of age as they held on; to narrowly edge a Brazilian side, that finally showed the verve and freedom of play in a second-half comeback bid, something the Selecao had missed throughout the tournament.
Not since the days of the midfield genius Enzo Scifo, has a Belgian side been earmarked for success at the global stage. A young Scifo’s ingenuity as a classical number 10 had helped Belgium finish 4th in the 1986 World Cup, six years after his predecessors had finished runners-up to West Germany in the European Championships, which remains Belgium’s best ever finish in an international tournament.
Belgian football slumped into mediocrity thereafter as the Red Devils failed to qualify for consecutive World Cups in 2006 and 2010. Continental form and fortunes also plummeted to a new low as they missed the bus for three consecutive European Championships.
After the team’s failed 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign Scifo had opined in an interview given to FIFA.com, “The team’s got talent but that spirit I’ve been talking about is missing. We’ve failed to qualify and that’s very hard to take, but there’s been a change with this new generation and I think the performances will really start to come over the next couple of years.”
Just like his passes, Scifo’s prediction too hit the bulls-eye as the ‘new generation’ of stars started performing at the highest level. This new Belgian side was slick. It had midfielders with silken touch, burly strikers with good finishing skills and big names in the defence. Almost the entire first XI was playing in the top English Premiership clubs and their exploits in the widely followed league meant expectations skyrocketed as the team made it to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil.
Clinical victories in all the league matches and a hard-fought win over the United States meant the Belgians were in the last eight of a World Cup for the first time since 1986. But the young side couldn’t get past tournament favourites Argentina as they lost by a single goal.
Coach Marc Wilmots’ attacking philosophy and ability to get the group together meant Belgium were playing creative football at breakneck speed. Much was expected from this team, which had now matured into a strong contender, during the 2016 UEFA Euro. A 0-2 loss to a tactically superior Italian side in the opener notwithstanding, the Belgians made it to the knock-outs, and announced their title credentials with a 4-0 drubbing of Hungary to enter the quarters. But an insipid display against newcomers Wales led to a shock exit and gave way to a discourse doubting this group’s ability to cope with pressure at big tournaments.
Out went Wilmots and in came Roberto Martinez. The Spanish coach had made a name for himself by helping smaller clubs punch above their weight in English football. But the Spaniard started with a loss against his native La Roja in his first match in charge. That was way back in September 2016 and Belgium have not lost since, under Martinez’s watch. A remarkable run of 23 matches unbeaten after their success against Brazil means Martinez’s team is now tied fifth for the longest unbeaten streaks in international football.
What has changed under Martinez is this team’s temperament when under the pump. And that was on display against the Japanese in the round of 16 as the Belgians came back from the dead to complete a remarkable comeback. Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard have matured into world class mid-fielders with an eye for goal, while Romelu Lukaku is finally delivering in Belgian colours. Thibaut Courtois’s acrobatic saves and assured presence under the bar shows he leads the race to succeed Manuel Neuer as the world’s best goalkeeper.
Belgium and Brazil last met in a World Cup knock-out match in 2002 when Rivaldo and Ronaldo netted to power the Selecao to the quarters and eventually a fifth World Cup title. The Belgians have already equalled their finest World Cup run with a win over Brazil this time and if they can see off their neighbours France in the semis, then the Golden Generation will be on the cusp of history.