Every so often, a nation unearths a golden generation of footballers – not just one or two talented players but a whole group of them, all peaking at same time in terms of ability, experience and availability.
It’s important to capitalise on a so-called golden generation. Spain did, in winning the 2010 World Cup. Germany did by triumphing in 2014. Further back, France’s best squad of players for a generation won the tournament in 1998. It doesn’t always work out, though. Despite a team that included David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Wayne Rooney, England couldn’t get past the quarter-finals in 2006.
Now it’s Belgium’s turn to cope with such lofty expectations. Belgium’s current crop of players have been lauded for some time, and make no mistake, it’s the best squad they’ve had for years. Trouble is, now they have to deliver and make a serious impact on the tournament. In 2014, they reached the quarter-finals (losing to Argentina). Two years later, at the European Championships, it was another quarter-final finish, this time exiting at the hands of Wales.
Surely, this Belgium squad is better than simply reaching the last eight of a tournament? That’s the pressure that sits on the shoulders of team coach Roberto Martinez. He may not get another World Cup from this group of players – some of them definitely won’t be around in four years’ time. This, then, is surely the nation’s optimum time for glory. If you’re betting on Belgium with williamhill.com, 888sport.com, unibet or another online provider, you’re sure to find them among the favourites.
Or at least they should be. Belgium’s big build up to the tournament hasn’t exactly been smooth. Martinez took the controversial decision to omit Radja Nainggolan from his squad, citing ‘tactical reasons’. On the face of it, this could be a mistake. Nainggolan is not a conventional player – he’s a bit of a loose cannon – but he could have given Belgium a vital edge in terms of attacking creativity. He’s exactly the type of wild card player who could win a game with a decisive goal from nowhere, and he’d have gone into the tournament off the back of a successful season with Roma.
That’s a strike against Martinez even before a ball was kicked. Then there’s the omission, from the final squad of 23 players, of Christian Benteke. The big striker had a rotten season with Crystal Palace but has a decent international goalscoring record of 12 goals in 34 matches. Without him, Belgium are light in the centre-forward area, with just Romelu Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi (just back from injury) as recognised strikers, though Dries Mertens, primarily a wide player can add support. Nevertheless, it feels like a gamble from Martinez.
There’s also concern over the fitness of captain Vincent Kompany, who suffered a groin injury in the pre tournament friendly against Portugal. This is nothing new of course; Kompany is the wrong side of 30 years of age and his last few years have been blighted by injury. He’s still in the squad but when Belgium’s other central defenders include Thomas Vermaelen, perhaps the only centre-back in world football with a worse injury record than Kompany, Martinez should be worried.
The group draw has been relatively kind on Belgium, who are odds-on to top their table, though England could push them for that. Other group opponents Panama and Tunisia shouldn’t hold any fears. Once into the knockout stages, opponents will come from Group H – Poland, Senegal, Colombia or Japan. Then, into the last eight – which is the very least Belgium should achieve – a meeting with Brazil or Germany is highly likely.
That’s when we’ll really see how good this Belgium is.