By Alistair Walker – @AliWalker24
Whisper it, but the Belgian ‘Golden Generation’ – which includes the best defender in the Premier League, Vincent Kompany; and the most complete player in the Premier League, Moussa Dembele – are genuinely emerging as a credible threat to win the 2014 World Cup. The Belgium bandwagon is currently experiencing rapid population growth, it’s time to get on board and claim you were near the front.
Now, as a brief disclaimer, the majority of ‘Golden Generations’ have spectacularly failed to deliver in major tournaments. See: England, Portugal and Ivory Coast of recent vintage. Over the last decade, England failed to display the requisite tactical intelligence and technical ability necessary to complement their immensely individual individuals; while Portugal struggled to marry plentiful attacking flair with defensive solidity – usually overbalancing toward one extreme or the other, with disastrous consequences. Ivory Coast were continuously undermined by managerial turmoil and a chronic inability to perform on the biggest occasions.
However, Belgium appears to have a stable squad, superbly suited to dominate every aspect of modern football and not fall prey to the above flaws. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is showing incredible ability and poise for one only twenty. Composed and imposing in equal measure – the defence comprising Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen is suitably rugged. The midfield, more on which later, should be the world’s envy. The only valid note for pessimism is the comparative lack of a proven, world-class option up front; although in two years, Christian Benteke might be Radamel Falcao.
In any event, the lack of an exceptional striker no longer seems a fatal hindrance to world domination. Italy won the 2006 World Cup competition with a revolving cast of mediocrity in attack; and Spain were victorious in 2010 despite the erratic Fernando Torres contributing little to the triumph, before they dispensed entirely with the principle of a striker at Euro 2012.
Nevertheless, a midfield encompassing the physical presence and footballing wisdom possessed in equal measure by Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel; the peerless dribbling and deceptive strength of Dembele; and Eden Hazard’s swaggering verve, should be greeted with awe and trembling. With the probable exception of Spain – a midfield without parallel in the history of football – this Belgian core will be more than a match for any nation on earth.
Note that the names Fellaini and Dembele are not originally Belgian. And here Belgium certainly deserves great credit for the importance they’ve placed on football development in ethnic minority communities. The national team has clearly reaped huge benefits in the last few years. The current squad includes those of Moroccan descent: Fellaini and Nacer Chadli; three ethnic Democratic Congolese: Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Benteke; and one of Malian origin: Dembele.
Why has Scotland – so utterly eviscerated by Belgium last week – with a proportionally similar ethnic population, not managed to unearth and develop similar talents? Chelsea’s Islam Feruz is possibly the only Scottish developed ethnic minority player who even warrants consideration as a potential national team player. And Feruz is only 16; so his continued progress is anything but assured. Belgium’s record in this dimension is to be admired, at a social level as well as a purely footballing one.
Now, with the World Cup taking place in Brazil, please permit a complete – but interesting – digression. It is worth remembering that a vastly inferior Belgium side could – and possibly should – have beaten eventual champions Brazil in the 2002 World Cup. If not for an inspired performance from Brazilian goalkeeper Marcos, who waged a titanic individual battle with the marvellous Marc Wilmots, then England, England, could very well have won the entire tournament. Consider it: Wilmots’ ‘goal’ is allowed to stand; Marcos produces one fewer remarkable save; Rivaldo’s strike isn’t deflected past the helpless Geert De Vlieger and Belgium win 2-1. And the most unfairly underrated England side of the last quarter century are a Belgium – Turkey – Germany triumvirate from the conclusion of 1966 as a national relevance.
So, provided Belgium don’t suffer from the ruinous problems of rampant ego and tactical ineptitude that has cursed other ‘golden generations’, they have a serious chance of matching, if not bettering their own semi-final performance of 1986; coincidentally, the last time the World Cup was hosted on Latin American soil. Is it a huge stretch to see this phenomenal group of Belgian players all reaching their glorious potential in 2014? Not particularly.
Which sides might be more equipped to win the tournament – Spain? Probably. Germany? Possibly. Brazil? Only due to their home advantage. Argentina? Prospects dependant on one player. List of authentic contenders: summarily exhausted. No European country has ever won the World Cup on South American soil and Belgium might well be the first; what a story.
Could Belgium’s golden generation reach their potential? Tweet us @talkingbaws or comment below.