Updated 1 hour ago
EVERY NATION has its own particular idiosyncrasies and Belgium is no exception.
As they prepare to start their World Cup campaign, the national side are looking at what is probably the last hurrah for their so-called ‘golden generation’ of players.
Already, Vincent Kompany, one of their great defenders, has retired, as has talented midfielder Mousa Dembélé. The likes of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel are unlikely to get another chance to win the international stage’s most sought-after trophy, as they get set to face Canada this evening (kick-off: 7pm Irish time).
The similarly talented Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are slightly younger and may get another chance in four years’ time, but they will certainly have passed their peak by then.
Yet in some quarters, the Belgians are being written off already. The squad is too old in some people’s estimation. Euro 2016, when they suffered a shock quarter-final defeat to Wales, and the 2018 World Cup, when they narrowly lost out to eventual winners France in the semi-finals, were widely seen as their best opportunities to claim some silverware. They did not disgrace themselves at Euro 2020 either, again losing to the soon-to-be champions, Italy, 2-1 in the quarters.
With a lack of young players really staking a claim for a starting XI spot, many of the old faces are still being relied on by coach Roberto Martinez, and so the worry is that it will be a case of diminishing returns in Qatar.
Emerging from a group featuring Morocco, Canada and Croatia is eminently achievable, but they will likely face either Spain or Germany in the round of 16, so some critics are tipping them to go no further than the first knockout stage.
Given the incredible talent at their disposal, the concern is that this gifted generation of players will be viewed as underachievers. It would be harsh to consider getting to at least the quarter-finals in the last four major tournaments as a failure, but whether they have truly fulfilled their potential is another matter.
To appreciate the psychology of this Belgium team fully, you need to understand their history in the sport as well as the national psyche. A new book, ‘Golden: Why Belgian Football is More Than One Generation’ by James Kelly, attempts to do just that.
Towards the start, Kelly quotes Professor Jean-Michel De Waele of Université libre de Bruxelles putting into context Belgium’s mindset in comparison to their European neighbours: “In the Netherlands, yes, they are totally sure that they are the best in the world. In France also, they are totally sure they are the best. Because on the north border and south border we have important countries who are totally sure that they are so important, [Belgian] people have this complex of inferiority.”
Belgian citizens accents also tend to be mocked by their neighbours, whether they speak French or Dutch.
They traditionally have been behind their neighbours in certain respects too, notably the football field, where they have never won a major trophy despite coming close on a couple of occasions.
It’s also perhaps no surprise given that their population (11.59 million) is considerably less than the Netherlands (17.53 million) and France (67.5 million).
There has therefore traditionally been a sense of low expectations associated with Belgian football despite an underrated history in the sport.
The country has long been producing great footballers such as former Club Brugge star Jan Ceulemans and Anderlecht legend Paul Van Himst, both of whom were regular Ballon D’Or contenders in the 1960s and 1980s respectively.
And while there have been great moments for the current generation, the ’80s also were a fruitful period — they got all the way to the final at the 1980 European Championships and came fourth in the World Cup six years later.
Generally, though, they have thrived amid low expectations. There is a greater sense of morale about the current generation, though their tag among the pre-tournament favourites at major events does not appear to sit well with them.
So although there is a sense that the current Belgium team have a different mentality, compared with their predecessors, there is also a fine line between confidence and arrogance. The latter characteristic arguably explains their Euro 2016 failure in particular. They were widely expected to beat a less talented Wales team but ultimately suffered a deserved loss.
“I spoke to a couple of Belgian fans who knew they were playing Wales, and it was in Lille just over the border. For a lot of them, it was just a quick hour drive,” Kelly tells The42.
“A lot of them had booked the day off afterwards — they thought they would be hungover and continue the party, and a lot of them had booked to go to the semi-final.
“And particularly Belgian journalists I spoke to, they all said ‘we underestimated Wales’. Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany missed [the game]. So there were a few of their main defenders missing, and they had Jason Denayer in there, and Jordan Lukaku. There was an arrogance of, ‘even with these players, who are Wales’ kind of thing.
“But if you look historically and how the people are, it was very unBelgian of them. Every major success Belgium have had really has come when they’ve not been expecting to do well.
“When they reached the final in 1980, for example, there was actually an article during the qualifying for that tournament in one of the newspapers that said: ‘We should disband the national team.’ Because they had just drawn 1-1 with Norway – at the time, they were semi-professional.
“In the ’86 World Cup, they were terrible in the group stage, everyone thought: ‘This is not going to go anywhere.’ The team actually packed their bags before the game against the USSR in the round of 16 because they thought: ‘There’s no way we’re going to win here.’ And they did, and they went on to reach the semis.
“On the flip side, at the 1950 World Cup, the team were quite good and people were saying: ‘Belgium could be a dark horse,’ and they didn’t win a game. In 1970 again, they had a few good players built around a successful Anderlecht side. And there was a massive falling out between Anderlecht and Standard Liege players. The team again underperformed massively and went out in the group stages.
“So they really do tend to perform best when people don’t expect them to do anything, which is why I’m really interested to see how they get on in the  World Cup.”
But while they are not most people’s favourites to triumph this time around, generally over the past decade, the Belgian national team have improved exponentially.
They often failed to qualify for the Euros in the past, only competing at the tournament four times in their first 13 attempts, and one of those was when they co-hosted with Holland.
They at least have a slightly better record in terms of World Cup qualification, but the 2000s were a particularly fallow period. They failed to qualify for any tournament between their last-16 exit at the 2002 World Cup and their quarter-final appearance in 2014.
“I grew up with the team of Emile Mpenza and Walter Baseggio, that team frames a lot of the perception of Belgium historically haven’t been very good at football, because obviously, that team was dreadful,” says Kelly.
“It’s almost like a lost generation. You had an entire generation of people that grew up both in and outside of Belgium [watching them]. That grit and workmanlike [qualities were] pure pragmatism because the team just wasn’t very good.
“Daniel Van Buyten was the main player they had. You’re talking about a centre-back who played for Bayern, Man City, and Marseille. It was alright but it’s not comparable to today whatsoever.”
The obvious follow-up question, therefore, is where did it all go right. In 2009, Belgium were as low as 66th in the Fifa world rankings (for context: Ireland are currently 49th). However, by 2015, they had risen to number one, and also were top in consecutive years between 2018 and 2021, before dropping to their current status at number two.
Yet there is no definitive explanation for this remarkable renaissance.
“You had some quite respected Belgian journalists who have 30-40 odd years of experience who just said there’s ‘no reason’. Quite a few people do credit the Belgian FA. You had a guy called Michel Sablon, who was the technical director and organised the strategy of Belgian football, he arranged a series of reports and inquiries into sort of the state of youth football.
“They brought through a load more coaches, they made the cheapest, most entry-level coaching free for people to do. And so the idea was, if you improve the quality of the coaches, you will improve the quality of the players.
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“But it’s the sort of thing where people do debate it because if you look at the majority of the squad, this generation were developed either under Genk or Standard Liege. So it’s the sort of thing where some people [believe] those clubs investing internally in their own youth facilities, and it not really being anything to do with the Belgian FA. It really depends on who you ask.
“It’s just very Belgian. Everything in Belgium is complicated in terms of the way the country is structured, and the way the government works. There’s not really one explanation for anything, which in a way, I think is quite nice with this team. There’s not really an easy way to explain how it happened. But I wouldn’t say it was a coincidence.
“The other point is that looking back historically, it’s not like Belgium has been a poor footballing nation. It was more just that the team of the 2000s and late ’90s was in a lull. Every nation gets that period where the national team just isn’t quite as good as it used to be.
“So I think it’s a combination of all these things.”
In addition to the many supremely talented footballers Belgium have produced, undoubtedly one of the most significant figures in the game’s history comes from the country.
In 1990, a 25-year-old named Jean-Marc Bosman wanted to leave RFC Liège and join French club Dunkerque at the end of his contract. The Belgian side refused to let him depart, arguing his value was approximately £500,000 and that fee was required to trigger his release. The dispute led to the midfielder suing his club and the Belgian FA, claiming that their stance contravened Uefa rules. During a prolonged legal battle, the player was suspended by his club before eventually winning a landmark case in 1995. The ruling had significant ramifications for the sport in general and Belgian football especially.
“After the Bosman ruling, Belgian teams did just become completely apathetic towards youth teams and their youth departments [for a while]. They kind of thought: ‘Well, there’s no point developing players because they’re just going to go to another league for free and we’re not going to be able to get to actually see their best years and really use them to bring success to us. We’re just developing them for someone else.’ So I think that definitely did have an impact [on the national team’s lack of success in the 2000s].”
The concern now is that Belgian football is set for another dormant period similar to the 2000s. After a plethora of outstanding talents emerging around the same time led to the so-called golden generation, the players that have followed in recent years have, for the most part, not been at a comparable level.
“Quite a few of these [great] players are going to retire after the World Cup. What’s going to happen then?
“There’s not really anyone at a good age, in their mid or early 20s that is of the calibre of [the last generation]. Youri Tielemans was kind of seen as the one, and he’s in a weird place really — he’s too good to be at Leicester, but he’s not really moved on from the years he’s been at Leicester. He’s at a bit of a crossroads. He’s a very good player, but there is a bit of skepticism in Belgium as to whether or not he can really lead the team once the current crop of older players have left.
“You’ve got Charles De Ketelaere, who has not had the best of starts, to be honest with you. But when I was out in Belgium, I went to watch Brugge a few times, and he was always very impressive.
“You’ve got sort of Zeno Debast, who’s started playing in the national team, he’s a young lad at Anderlecht
“Maarten Vandevoordt, the goalkeeper at Genk would be another one who is tipped to be very good in the future.
“So within the federation, there is an optimism that they are going to continue to create players because they believe that the facilities have massively improved in the past 10 years — that’s one thing I would give real credit to the Belgian FA for. They have a brand new training centre and there is a lot more youth infrastructure at the clubs than there used to be.
“I think when you look maybe more broadly, journalists, fans, and people on the outside typically just think: ‘When all these players have retired, we’re not going to be able to have a team like this ever again, we’re not going to get a world star like De Bruyne or Lukaku.’
“I would be a bit more optimistic. From what I’ve seen of the youth setups, I think they’re more than alright. It may be difficult for them to get a team quite to the level they’ve managed to have the past 10 years, but it’s not that they’re going to go back into the decline we saw 15-20 years ago. Not at all.”
‘Golden: Why Belgian Football is More Than One Generation’ by James Kelly is published by Pitch Publishing. More info here.