Belgium on the brink as golden generation bid to keep last World Cup shot alive

Kevin De Bruyne has struggled so far in Qatar

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It could be the end of an era for a generation. They are the golden generation who have not struck gold and probably never will now. And yet Roberto Martinez, with his remarkable gift for positivity, argued that, even with a group-stage exit from the World Cup, the greatest pool of players Belgium have ever had have achieved more than some champions.

“This generation haven’t won a major tournament but they’re leaving a legacy and that can go further,” the Belgium manager said. “This group of players deserve respect and admiration. We can win, draw or lose but the legacy of this generation is clear. The next 20 years will not be the same because of them.”

Martinez’s reasoning was multifaceted. “They got a bronze medal in 2018, they were four years the No 1 [ranked team by Fifa] and 21 of them have got their A Licences,” he said. “They are going to carry on affecting Belgian football from a coaching perspective for the next 20 years.”

So, undoubtedly, would winning a tournament. As it is, Martinez’s Belgium were semi-finalists in the last World Cup and quarter-finalists in Euro 2020. It would point to a downward trend if they departed Qatar earlier still. While the Spaniard cited the fact Thibaut Courtois will become the eighth of his group to reach 100 caps against Croatia on Thursday, that can be a sign of ageing as much as achievement.

“It is interesting, when I arrived in 2016 there was talk of the golden generation and clearly we were not,” added Martinez. “The golden generation in Belgian football was 1986, when they arrived in the semi-finals in Mexico.” And yet if that was designed to reflect on his own record, he was blessed to inherit a group ready to peak.

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He was bequeathed Romelu Lukaku at 23, Courtois at 24, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne at 25, Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld at 27 and Jan Vertonghen at 29. Six-and-a-half years later, they are all still there. Michy Batshuayi is now 29 and is in the younger half of Belgium’s squad in Qatar. Talk of aged Belgians needing to find the correct answer in a difficult situation used to revolve around Hercule Poirot: now it is a matter for Martinez’s old-timers, needing victory to extend their participation in the World Cup. The second-ranked team in the world face the side who came second in the last World Cup, in the 2018 runners-up, Croatia. They need to win.

If expectation can be a burden for a squad long tipped to secure silverware so, it appears, was denigration. “We heard people say we weren’t a golden generation and started asking ourselves questions and doubting ourselves,” said defender Timothy Castagne, a relative youngster of 26. “We lost some of the confidence we had.”

Even now, the Leicester full-back argued confidence levels are only at “six or seven” out of 10. That is higher, he said, after talks on Monday. “It wasn’t a crisis meeting,” Castagne insisted. “It was important to get things off our chests and share our views but there were no insults and things didn’t get out of hand.”

The reports were that they did get out of hand after defeat to Morocco, that Lukaku had to intervene in a dressing-room row between Hazard, De Bruyne and Vertonghen. Not so, Martinez was adamant. Often the optimist, the manager was uncharacteristically critical. Maybe it is sign of how high the stakes are but he appeared to accuse the Belgian media of trying to undermine his team by amplifying L’Equipe’s initial claim.

“Now we have some outlets in Belgium that are happy to jump on fake news,” he said. “That is quite astonishing, A story became the main topic of news in Belgium. There is more desire to find negative news than to support this team and enjoy the talent of the best generation we have ever had in Belgium football. Whoever has done it has scored a great own goal for Belgium. If I could weaken opponents as a journalist I would do that. Whoever has done it is a genius. I would do the same to try to weaken an opponent at a World Cup. Hopefully the real fans of the Red Devils – the real fans – can enjoy the process.”

As even Martinez conceded, they have had little to enjoy thus far. Belgium were poor in victory against Canada, disappointing in defeat to Morocco. Perhaps only Courtois and De Bruyne of their A-Listers arrived at the World Cup in anything resembling peak form, but the goalkeeper was culpable against Morocco and the midfielder has been below par; thus far the defining element of his tournament was the interview when he branded Belgium too old.

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Lukaku has not had peak fitness but Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic expects him to start. “He’s the top scorer in the Belgium national team [history] and also a leader who enjoys big tournaments,” Martinez said. Lukaku scored four in the last World Cup, four more in Euro 2020. Belgium have only got one in Qatar so far, a meagre return for their considerable talents.

“Some players might think: ‘It is my last World Cup so I want to do something special,’” Castagne said. And it might be the last game of their last World Cup for the generation who promised more than they delivered, no matter how far and long Martinez thinks their legacy will spread.

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