In the end, all Roberto Martinez could do at the Allianz Arena was to stare into the distance. Italy, a team in full bloom with unmatched class and, in the waning minutes, old-school cunning, had knocked Belgium’s golden generation out of the tournament. In the aftermath, there was a lot of soul-searching and even some finger-pointing for the Belgians. Should Martinez have replaced the invisible Thomas Meunier with Yannick Carrasco instead of Nasser Chadli, who limped off after 60 seconds? Should Christian Benteke have been given a chance?
But amid all the analysis, condemnation and disappointment, one sentiment prevailed – this moment, this gut-wrenching elimination felt like the end of Belgium’s golden generation, a group of talented players who grew up together and played barnstorming soccer in stretches, but never won a major prize.
In 2000, following a first-round elimination in the European Championship on home soil, Belgium revamped its soccer model, shifting away from the blue collar style it had played for decades. It was replaced by a philosophy based on a 4-3-3 formation all the way down to the youth teams and an emphasis on individual skills. Belgium produced a new type of player: sexy, modern and highly skillful – not on an industrial scale like neighbors France and Germany given its size, but still enough to form generational talents like Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
The past decade, Belgium’s results improved steadily: a quarter-final at the 2014 World Cup, and a quarter-final at Euro 2016 followed by a semi-final and bronze medal at the 2018 World Cup.
After the last European Championship and that missed opportunity against Wales, Martinez succeeded Marc Wilmots. The Spaniard arrived with the bold promise that Belgium could win the World Cup. He almost delivered in Russia. Martinez improved the team, with all the players in tune with his attacking 3-4-3 formation, resulting in a wonderful comeback 3-2 comeback against Japan and a match for the ages against Brazil.
And so, Euro 2020 was to be Belgium’s moment, a crowning achievement for a delightful generation, but the group stage was a slow burner and the team never really convinced. Then in the round of sixteen, Belgium demonstrated cold and calculated soccer, modeled after France 2018. It was enough to see off Portugal without ever excelling. The team played in a low block, a way to protect the aging defense as well from having to cover the space in behind a high line. The result was lean, economic soccer, based on deep defending and quick transitions.
But Italy found Belgium out. Mancini’s team was modern and applied a joie de vivre. After the national anthems, Italy was already a goal up. When it mattered most, Belgium seemed overcome by a ‘mongrel complex’, a feeling of collective inferiority or lack of self-belief in one’s own qualities. Of course, mitigating circumstances counted: De Bruyne was not fit, and Hazard watched on from the bench. Martinez needed all his best players to peak at the right time, and that simply didn’t happen.
And so what’s the legacy of this Belgian team? At the World Cup, the team exhilarated; this tournament ended in an anticlimax with counterintuitive soccer.
The Belgians will need to renew, come the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Nine outfield players in the squad were over thirty. In defense, Thomas Vermaelen is 35, but the conveyor belt of Belgian talent production rolls on: Youri Tielemans can become a leader, even if the Leicester City midfielder still proved to be a lightweight at Euro 2020. And teenager Jeremy Doku has the world at his feet. He darted and danced past Italian defenders at will. The future, thus, is still bright, but this current generation – the golden one – is on its last legs. Of course, De Bruyne and co will always have Kazan.