The Golden Generation of Belgium topped the FIFA World Rankings for more than three years, but failed to win any trophy!!!
The 2022 FIFA World Cup has been full of surprises so far. In one of the most surprising events; Morocco won a difficult Group F at the expense of 2018 runners-up, Croatia, and Belgium’s Golden Generation. And the question on every one’s lips is; have Belgium “wasted” their greatest team?
In this post, FootballOrbit examines the record of the Red Devils’ trophyless stars.
What is a Golden Generation in football?
In football, a Golden Generation (or Golden Team) is an exceptionally talented group of players of similar age, whose achievements reach or are expected to reach a level of success beyond that which their team had ever achieved.
Examples of Golden Generation sides include:
¶Ivory Coast (2006–2015)
The focus of this article is on Belgium’s Golden Generation side that boast of world-class talents who hail from a small, second-tier soccer nation and conquered the world; but without silverware success.
Belgium is not among Europe’s “Big 5” (England, France, Germany, Italy & Spain). Yet over the last decade; the members of its Golden Generation team dominated those leagues.
The country’s population is just a little over 11.5 million.
Belgium’s football history
Nicknamed the “Red Devils”, Belgium’s national football team won a gold medal at the 1920 Olympics.
It had little success at the first few editions of the FIFA World Cup between 1930 and 1970 — never getting past the group stage.
Then there was a very low period where it failed to qualify for major tournaments.
However, there was a solid run in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the Red Devils were runners-up at Euro 1980.
Belgium would go on to enjoy better times as it qualified for six successive World Cup tournaments from 1982 to 2002 — and mostly progressed to the second round.
They produced their best World Cup showing in 1986 when they finished 4th — after being downed by a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina in the semi-finals.
Furthermore, the Belgian league enjoyed some little fame as Anderlecht won the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup 3 times, while Club Brugge advanced to the 1978 European Cup final.
Subsequently, the significant changes in football left Belgium chasing its increasingly wealthy and influential neighbors by the turn of the century.
Equally, its clubs were less relevant and player production slowed drastically.
Belgium failed to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, as well as the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Euros.
In the summer of 2007, the Red Devils ranked as low as 71st in the FIFA World Rankings. To put into perspective, the USA (not really fond of football) has never fallen below No. 36.
After crashing out of the 2002 World Cup, significant reforms were made to improve Belgian football.
Belgium’s Golden Generation
During the 10-year period from 2002 to 2012 in which Belgium failed to qualify for major tournaments, a Golden Generation matured.
Many of its members would go on to win individual and team awards/titles in foreign European clubs and competitions.
The first significant sign of progress for the Belgian national team came at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
The U-23 Belgian side — featuring the likes of Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembélé, Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin Mirallas and Jan Vertonghen — won 3 games and finished fourth.
It lost 4-1 to Nigeria in the semi-finals.
These young players will form the nucleus of an emerging pool of extraordinary talents.
The critical second stage in Belgium’s football development was when its players started to earn transfers to big foreign (especially English) clubs.
Kompany, who started at Anderlecht, switched from Hamburg to Manchester City right after the Olympics.
Vermaelen would move from Ajax to Arsenal, and Vertonghen left Ajax for Tottenham Hotspur. Fellaini went from Standard Liège to Everton and to Manchester United.
Those players performed well, thus opening the door for their colleagues and boosting other teams’ interest in scouting Belgian youngsters.
Moreso, there was the emergence of Eden Hazard (one of the most skillful footballers in the world), Kevin De Bruyne (one of the best midfielders of his generation) and Romelu Lukaku (who became Belgium’s all-time top scorer).
Other key players of this Golden Generation include Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Yannick Carrasco, Axel Witsel, Dries Mertens, Thorgan Hazard and Toby Alderweireld.
These players helped Belgium reach the summit of world football. They were exceptionally good, developed rapidly and were thriving at the biggest clubs abroad.
2014 World Cup.
Belgium reached the quarter-final stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup — where they got eliminated by eventual runners-up, Argentina.
In 2014, Belgium climbed to the fourth spot in FIFA World Rankings and for the first time ever; it ranked first in November 2015.
At Euro 2016, they finished second in their group behind Italy.
After beating Hungary 4-0 in the round of 16, their quarter-final match against Wales seemed like a walk over. But Wales gave them quite a shock in a 3-1 defeat.
2018 World Cup.
After the Euro 2016 disappointment, Belgium went to the 2018 World Cup hopeful of winning the title — as most of its squad were in their prime and among the most valuable footballers in the world.
The Red Devils stormed through the group stage and came from 2-0 down to defeat Japan in the round of 16.
They impressively beat Brazil in the quarter-finals but lost to eventual champions, France, in the semi-final.
It was a painful loss as Belgium had dominated possession and conceded the only goal of the game from a corner.
They beat England to finish in 3rd place — their best ever performance at the World Cup.
It was a progress from reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship.
But many felt that Belgium’s Golden Generation had missed its last chance of ever winning a major silverware in Russia.
Ahead of Euro 2020, there were fears that time was running out for the side and they could end up becoming a “wasted” generation without trophies.
During the tournament, the Red Devils won all their 3 group stage matches and defeated defending champions, Portugal, 1-0 in the round of 16.
Unfortunately; eventual winners, Italy, defeated Belgium 2-1 and they had to exit a major tournament in the quarterfinals again.
UEFA Nations League.
Moreso, UEFA’s newly established international tournament (the UEFA Nations League) gave Belgium another golden opportunity to win silverware in 2021.
They secured 5 wins in 6 matches and finished top of Group A2.
Belgium took on France in the semi-finals and victory seemed near this time……..
But in another heartbreak for their fans, France defeated them 3-2 in the semifinals. France would go on to beat Spain 2-1 in the final to win the trophy.
Furthermore, Belgium disappointed once more at the 2022/23 UEFA Nations League — failing to even reach the semi-finals.
Qatar 2022 as last chance for the Golden Generation
The Golden Generation was good enough to win a major international title but hasn’t.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar was the last chance for the side to win something and, as usual, expectations were very high.
The Belgians made light work of qualification for Qatar 2022 — recording 6 wins and 2 draws.
They entered the tournament as the No. 2 team in the FIFA World Rankings and were one of the tournament favourites as the Golden Generation prepared to make one last run at the trophy.
Going into the tournament, Roberto Martinez’s men still remain a formidable force.
Although they have lost some few stars, Belgium still took a strong squad of experienced players playing at top clubs to Qatar. This includes:
Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid), Simon Mignolet (Club Brugge), Toby Alderweireld (Royal Antwerp), Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Dortmund), Youri Tielemans (Leicester City), Axel Witsel (Atletico Madrid), Michy Batshuayi (Fenerbahce), Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan) and Dries Mertens (Galatasaray).
They were drawn in group F alongside Canada, Morocco and 2018 finalists, Croatia.
They narrowly won their first match by defeating Canada 1-0. But there were signs of disunity in the team.
After they had taken the lead against Canada, De Bruyne and Alderweireld openly engaged in a heated exchange on the pitch.
More reports of unrest within the squad surfaced after De Bruyne also publicly claimed that the squad was “too old” to win the World Cup.
The comments came just a day before Belgium’s crucial second group game vs Morocco — which they shockingly lost 2-0.
The loss to Morocco meant that their last group match against Croatia was a “do or die” affair.
But a 0-0 draw versus the Croatians saw the Red Devils crash out with only 4 points. They scored just one goal in 3 matches!!!
Moreso, the game against Croatia will forever remain unforgettable to their fans…….and for the wrong reasons.
With the game tied at 0-0 at half-time, Romelu Lukaku was brought on ahead of the second half and he endured a nightmare 45 minutes in front of goal.
Lukaku has been an important player for Belgium over the past decade, but he last started a match in August. He had made only two substitute appearances for Inter Milan after suffering a thigh injury.
At the World Cup, he had only played 10 minutes for Belgium in the match against Morocco.
To be thrown on at half-time in such a tense game and be tasked with turning the game around was too much to ask from a player who regularly crumbles under pressure.
And he fumbled by sensationally missing FOUR glorious chances!!!
The first was on the hour mark. After a Yannick Carrasco run into the box was halted by the goalkeeper, the ball fell to Lukaku. He was just 10 yards out and the net was gaping.
He managed to shoot the ball but it hit the inside of the post, cannoned off and got cleared.
For the second, he headed the ball wide from about 6 yards out with the goalkeeper out of position!
For the 3rd chance, he somehow flicked the ball wide after Thomas Meunier had fed a low cross to him in the area.
The last one was baffling as he failed to turn the ball over the line when Thorgan Hazard’s cross came to him at chest height from point-blank range!!
It is easy to single Lukaku out as a scapegoat, but the truth is that Belgium’s Golden Generation has been in decline since reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup 4 years ago.
Eden Hazard is no longer at his best while Kevin De Bruyne seems a disillusioned figure in Qatar.
And there is no reliable back-up striker to Lukaku in the squad, with Michy Batshuayi lacklustre.
Furthermore, the central defensive partnership of Toby Alderweireld (33) and Jan Vertonghen (35) both have 270 caps between them and a combined age of 68.
Of the 26 players in Belgium’s squad at the 2022 World Cup; 11 were at least 30 years old — including Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier, Toby Alderweireld and Thibaut Courtois.
Belgium’s starting eleven against Croatia had an average age of 31 years and 95 days — the oldest for any side at the World Cup since 2010.
The squad is not just old, it also lacks direction.
Have the years of lofty expectations and near misses worn them down?
The lasting images of Belgium’s 2022 World Cup campaign — and Golden Generation — was seeing all-time goalscorer Romelu Lukaku punching the side of the dugout and later being consoled as he sat with his shirt pulled over his head.
He left the field in tears knowing that his series of shocking misses right in front of goal after coming on as a half-time sub will never be forgotten.
At the end, there was frustration at what feels like a trophyless end of an era for Belgium’s Golden Generation. Many believe that elimination from the 2022 FIFA World Cup is the end of the road for the side.
The latest failure is a huge disappointment for a talented set of players who have repeatedly underwhelmed when it really matters on the biggest stages.
They play beautiful, technical and attacking football, but it is NOT sufficient. Great teams are remembered and celebrated for the titles they won.
There were lofty expectations from this Golden Generation that came from a modest country.
Since September 2018 — shortly after the World Cup — Belgium has been ranked by FIFA as the best national team in the world.
That’s more than 3 years, but there is no silverware to show for that!
In addition, Belgium is the only team that has been ranked No. 1 by FIFA but never won a World Cup or continental championship.
Winning at the highest level against the likes of France, Brazil, Germany and Spain represents a final step that very few teams could achieve. And the Belgians painfully learnt that.
But for a nation the size of Belgium to come as far as it did (and to be as good as it was) is a rare occurrence.
Also, many will blame the manager, Roberto Martinez, for letting the squad go so stale.
During his 6 years in charge; the Spaniard had a squad packed full of superstars and never reached a major final — despite being ranked world No.1 from September 2018 to March 2022.
Their highest achievement was finishing 3rd at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Without any doubt, there is the need for significant changes in the Belgian national team.
The head coach has already resigned, but its not just the coaching staff that should be replaced, but the players as well.
That will finally be the end of the so called Golden Generation.
Belgium’s Golden Generation, though, will remain forever be remembered as one of the greatest teams that failed to win the FIFA World Cup.
Finally, it would be known as a team of stars without titles!