With Germany in something of a slump, Italy improving but still inexperienced at the sharp end of tournaments, and Spain lacking the depth of the previous generation, the national team out of Europe’s “big four” (nations that have lifted both the World Cup and European Championships) favored by the bookies is France. The door is open for one of three countries harboring golden generations of players.
Outside of family lineage, a generation is a tricky thing to define. The flux of bodies through an institution—in this case, a national soccer team—cannot easily be separated out. Doing so is inherently arbitrary and certainly not scientific, but nevertheless useful. We have chosen to define a generation as a range of seven years, which would allow players of, say, 26 and 19 years of age to play a cycle of four tournaments together: two World Cups and two continental Championships. The first golden generation is Belgium.
With more than 11 million people split into three federal districts—Dutch-speaking Flanders, French-speaking Wallonia, and bilingual Brussels—nothing unites the people of Belgium like its stellar football team. The Red Devils became the world’s no. 1 national team in September 2018. For a country with just 26 professional clubs spread across two divisions, it is a remarkable success story; Belgium has bulked up like Robert De Niro for Raging Bull and now, on the back of a bona fide golden generation, punches far above its weight.
In the past 11 years, the delicate cohabitation within those complex political structures has twice seen Belgium go more than 580 days unable to form a national government, and yet the country’s blend of Flemish, Walloon, and immigrant influences has been alchemized into a team that has reached the quarterfinals, quarterfinals, and semifinals (finishing third) in its past three tournaments, respectively. Nothing in sport is permanent, however, and with some of the golden generation’s initial vanguard retired from the national team (Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembélé, and Marouane Fellaini), Dries Mertens, Jan Vertonghen, and Thomas Vermaelen all on the wrong side of 33, and with the Qatar World Cup still 17 months away, the upcoming European Championships might represent Belgium’s best chance of landing a trophy, and so moving out from the shadow of their Dutch neighbors, winners of the Euros in 1988 and three-time World Cup finalists. To achieve this, they will need their star performers—captain Eden Hazard (30 years old), midfield maestro Kevin de Bruyne (29), rampaging goal machine Romelu Lukaku (28), and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (29)—fit and firing.
Belgium went out of the Euro 2016 in a shocking 3-1 defeat to Wales, shortly after which current manager Roberto Martínez was appointed. Martínez has since combined his coaching duties with the role of technical director at the Belgian FA, overseeing the integration of the next generation. Prior to that tournament, Belgium had not qualified for the European Championships since 1984. (They were cohosts and automatic entrants in 2000.) In 1986, the team of Jean-Marie Pfaff, Enzo Scifo, and Jan Ceulemans reached the World Cup semis in Mexico, losing to eventual champions Argentina (well, to Maradona).
That same generation made a last-16 appearance at Italia ’90, but were eliminated by a 119th-minute wonder goal from England’s David Platt. Amid the fallowness that followed, Martínez’s predecessor in the TD role sowed the seeds for the bounteous harvest to come.
Michel Sablon, part of the Belgian coaching staff at Italia ’90, was appointed FA technical director in 2001. By September 2006, after studying coaching methods at Ajax, Barcelona, and in the national academies of Belgium’s neighbors, France, Netherlands, and Germany, Sablon had written a blueprint for the country’s youth football revolution. Entry-level coaching courses were made free, bringing a tenfold increase in uptake. Development was prioritized over results, with league tables at under-7s and under-8s banned. Sablon commissioned a video study of 1,500 youth games and showed skeptical coaches at clubs and in schools how few times kids touched the ball, winning many over to two-on-two, five-on-five, and eight-on-eight matches. For older age groups, he proselytized for a fluid 4-3-3 formation to be implemented across the entire system, with a focus on one-on-one duels, the crucible for the type of footballing imagination that escapes systematization. Eight national centers for elite players between 14 and 18 years old had been established, and these allowed a vast hothousing of talent in morning sessions, with participants able to train with their clubs in the evenings. Standards started shooting up.
The visionary Sablon is not the only factor behind the emergence of Belgium’s golden generation, of course. Between 1976 and 1993, five different Belgian clubs reached European finals. Anderlecht won three trophies and twice reached the European Cup semifinals. Club Brugge went one better, losing 1-0 to Liverpool in the 1978 final. However, as the European Cup gave way to the Champions League and its attendant economics, a glass ceiling formed over these once-punchy clubs. The top Belgian sides now aim to develop future stars for the major European leagues. Standard Liège have a state-of-the-art training complex, and have produced players like Fellaini (sold for £15 million to Everton, then a record for a Belgian player), Axel Witsel, and Michy Batshuayi. This economic model might relegate the individual clubs to second-class European citizens, but it has advantages for the national team, with half the current 26-man squad at clubs that finished in the top five of the “big five” leagues (Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1).
Belgium’s squad that made the semis at Mexico ’86 was an all-white mix of Flemish and Walloon. The team that made the semis in Russia was multiethnic, with players of many backgrounds (Moroccan, Malian, Martiniquais, Congolese, Kosovan-Albanian, Spanish).
This diversity has itself helped rally the nation’s various communities to the Red Devil cause, as did a clever advertising campaign for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. A 1-0 quarterfinal exit to runners-up Argentina was no disgrace, although the defeat to Wales in France two years later cost coach Marc Wilmots his job. Martínez was appointed that August and two years later led the Belgians to the World Cup semis on the much-harder side of the draw, where they lost 1-0 to a set-piece goal from eventual winners France.
Martínez is a relentlessly upbeat figure who has instilled a happy atmosphere in a squad that once had a reputation for disharmony. Team meetings are conducted in English, helping nullify any potential Flemish-Walloon cultural resentment. He has won 43 of his 56 games at the helm, losing just four, and is almost certain to deploy his favored 3-4-3 formation, a setup he has departed from sparingly in the past four years, most notably against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals.
Twenty members of the 26-man squad are aged between 27 and 34. The average age is 28 years and nine months, making it the second-oldest team at the tournament. Or perhaps it is best to say the most experienced, with 1,338 caps between them—of the other nations, only France and Portugal break four figures. Belgium’s aggregate of 239 goals is at least 100 more than all their rivals bar the Group F powerhouses of Portugal, France, and Germany. However, with five substitutions permitted, plus a sixth in extra time, there should be enough rotation to keep Belgium’s veterans fresh.
Keeping the back door locked is Real Madrid giant Thibaut Courtois, a commanding presence on aerial balls and, with those octopus limbs, a surprisingly agile shot stopper. Courtois won the Golden Glove at Russia 2018, has had a strong season for the madrileños (making the Champions League Squad of the Year), and, at 29, is coming into his prime. In front of him, Toby Alderweireld (32) and Jan Vertonghen’s (34) lack of speed is partly compensated for by the back three structure, in which Lyon’s Jason Denayer (25) is the probable third member. Nevertheless, this potential vulnerability will influence who occupies the two central midfield positions.
Fitness permitting, the talismanic Kevin De Bruyne is a lock. The world’s preeminent midfield playmaker over the past half-decade possesses an unrivaled range of passing. De Bruyne has had an injury-disrupted season, culminating in a broken nose and eye socket in the Champions League final, but is one of an elite half-dozen players with the potential to bend the tournament to his will. Favored to start alongside him would ordinarily be Witsel (32), although the Borussia Dortmund man has not played since January due to a ruptured Achilles and is unlikely to play in the opening games. In his absence, Martínez is likely to turn to either Wolves’ Leander Dendoncker, a more defensive option, or Leicester City’s intelligent and versatile Youri Tielemans, at 24 the second youngest on the squad.
Witsel’s Dortmund clubmates, Thomas Meunier (29) and Thorgan Hazard (28), are almost certain to start at wing back. Meunier, an underrated performer in Belgium’s past two tournaments and now free of a difficult spell at PSG, is the more defensive-minded of the two; Hazard is the more adventurous, assuming he gets the nod over Atlético’s Yannick Carrasco (27).
Belgium has its collective fingers crossed that Hazard’s colleague on the left side will be older brother Eden, winner of the Silver Ball in Russia. Hazard, the Belgian captain, has not played for Belgium until recently, however, and has endured a miserable time amid the impatience and entitlement of the Madrid goldfish bowl, with a dozen separate injuries sidelining him at one time or another. At his best, he is a top-10 player in the world, a mesmerizing and deceptively powerful dribbler capable of unlocking any defense.
Should the skipper make it, his colleagues in the forward line will almost certainly be Napoli veteran Mertens (34) and Inter spearhead Lukaku, whose 24 Serie A goals this season fired the nerazzurri to a first scudetto in 11 years and landed him the league’s MVP award. After failing to break through at Chelsea and then struggling at Manchester United under José Mourinho, Lukaku is now a happy footballer at the peak of his powers—and, with 60 international goals by the age of 28, a still-underappreciated force of nature. Crystal Palace pair Batshuayi and Christian Benteke, along with Rennes’ 19-year-old starlet Jérémy Doku, provide game-changing options from the bench.
At its best, with everyone in good health, Belgium’s aging golden generation possesses the talent to go all the way. With games in Copenhagen and Saint Petersburg against Russia (ranked 38 by FIFA), Finland (54), and Denmark (10), the group stages ought to be a Baltic cruise, particularly with the four best third-place finishers from six groups advancing to the knockout stages. Belgium won home and away against Denmark last autumn in the Nations League, as well as recording home and away wins against Russia a year earlier in qualifying for this tournament. Thereafter, it will depend on the permutations of the draw.
A last-four finish is the minimum requirement. Exiting at that stage would doubtless still be a disappointment for both the Red Devils’ raucous support and a multitalented, multilingual, multiethnic team for whom it is perhaps now or never to land an international prize.
Scott Oliver is a British writer covering sports and the intersection of culture and politics. He has written for The Guardian, VICE, ESPN, i-D, and New Statesman, among others.