World Cup: Can Belgium’s golden generation deliver?

Belgian stars (from left) Thorgan Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Benteke, Vincent Kompany, Christian Kabasele and Michy Batshuayi arrive for a pre-World Cup training session. Photograph: Bruno Fahy/AFP/Getty
Belgian stars (from left) Thorgan Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Christian Benteke, Vincent Kompany, Christian Kabasele and Michy Batshuayi arrive for a pre-World Cup training session. Photograph: Bruno Fahy/AFP/Getty
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A s England have discovered to their cost in the not-too-distant past, attaching the label “Golden Generation” to a group of international footballers can be a dangerously hubristic business.

But, for Belgian supporters and media alike, it has proved impossible to avoid describing their current national team in exactly those terms as they prepare to head to Russia.

Ranked third in the Fifa world rankings, Belgium are regarded by many as genuine contenders to go all the way and get their hands on the World Cup in Moscow on 15 July. Even the most cursory glance at their multi-talented squad, dominated by some of the English Premier League’s leading performers, explains why.

Quarter-finalists in both of the last two major tournaments, in which they lost out to Argentina and Wales respectively in the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championships, Belgium now have a group of battle-hardened international players with an average age profile which should put them at the peak of their powers.

After Marc Wilmots was sacked in the aftermath of Euro 2016, the man charged with ensuring the Red Devils fulfil their potential is Roberto Martinez, whose unlikely career trajectory towards becoming a World Cup manager included a brief stint as a Motherwell player back in 2001.

His progress ever since has been observed with keen interest by Pat Nevin, who was chief executive of the Fir Park club at the time. Former Scotland winger Nevin, who will be working at the World Cup as an analyst for the BBC, is intrigued to see if the ex-Swansea, Wigan and Everton boss can satisfy the levels of expectancy now surrounding the Belgian squad.

“When I was chief executive at Motherwell, some people used to say I was effectively the team manager and pulling the strings,” recalls Nevin. “Listen, there was no chance that could ever be the case with capable senior players such as Roberto, Owen Coyle and Billy Davies at the club.

“As impressive as he was, though, I’d have to admit it’s been a surprise to see Roberto go on to become just as successful and high profile as he has in management.

“He’s done extraordinarily well but I have to say that, again, I was surprised when he got the Belgian job after how it ended for him at Everton a couple of years ago. But they felt he suited their style, the way they want to play football. It has worked out pretty well for them so far, but we still don’t know if it will work out exactly how they want.

“They are a great team, they have fantastic players. They are actually capable of winning the World Cup.

“It sounds like a bit of a wild thing to say, but they definitely are.

“It’s all about whether the necessary group spirit can be engendered among a hugely talented collection of individuals. I’m not sure if it can but we are about to find out,” added Nevin.

Nevin’s media portfolio also includes regular work for Chelsea, one of his former clubs, and two of Belgium’s key players hold particular interest for him. Current Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard, pictured, and former Stamford Bridge striker Romelu Lukaku will both be crucial to Martinez’s hopes but Nevin feels only one of the duo has the capability to become the biggest star of this World Cup.

“Eden’s not the right type of personality for that,” says Nevin. “He doesn’t have that selfish streak that the ones who tend to be the individual stars of a tournament usually have.

“He is very laid back all the time. Hazard kind of drifts along – not in a negative way, just in terms of his personality. I don’t see that as a weakness in him as a person and he is a wonderful player, but I think it would prevent him being one of those players who makes it ‘his’ tournament. He’ll be more of a wing man, if you like, but could still be one of the best players at the World Cup. He should be relatively fresh. I wouldn’t say he has coasted through the season with Chelsea but he hasn’t exactly battered himself for the entirety of it. He really kicked on in the last two months, helping Chelsea win the FA Cup. He is important to Belgium.

“Lukaku definitely does have that ‘I’m the man, it’s about me’ kind of attitude. If the ball comes to him, if it’s a chance for him, he will always do what’s best for him.

“He is a classic centre-forward in that respect. Belgium can afford him to be that way, because they have enough players around and behind him who will create chances for him.

“They will be trying to feed him as often as they can. He has got every attribute to be the top scorer in the tournament, without a shadow of a doubt. If he could play even more as a team player, he would be the best in the business. I’ve watched him ever since his time at Chelsea and there was always that one question mark against him.

“He is an exceptionally good player but, oddly enough, he could still be better. If his work rate was better than it is, if it was how it should be, he could be the best striker in the world.”

While Belgium should comfortably qualify from a group which brackets them with England, Tunisia and Panama, Nevin feels they could become more vulnerable defensively as the tournament progresses.

“If they have any weakness, it is a serious lack of pace at the back,” he added. “Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany are talented and experienced defenders but none of them is the most agile or quick.

“So, when you look at the teams they will play if they progress as expected in the tournament, they are going to come up against some exceptionally quick and agile strikers. That’s definitely a weakness.

“But there’s no doubt it is an extraordinary generation of Belgian players. I can remember playing for Scotland against a really good Belgian side back in 1987, when they had guys like Nico Claesen and Enzo Scifo, but they weren’t anywhere near the quality of this current one.

“If you look at what is coming after this squad, though, it’s not quite as good. I’ve spoken to people in Belgium and they do have a worry about what is coming through. So it’s not just a once in a generation standard of team, it’s a once in six or seven generations. They need to take this chance and I think they are capable of doing it.”