Just three matches and 16 teams had to pack their bags to return home. For Belgium, the World Cup failure also signaled the end of an era that promised much but delivered little.
For a country just half the size of Latvia or Lithuania, Belgium has always been mighty. They won Olympic gold as early as 1920 and produced some of the world’s finest talent in the latter half of the 20th century. A third-place finish in Euro 1972, bettered by a runner-up spot in 1980, and then a World Cup semi-final appearance in 1986 were testament to that.
But there have also been times to forget. Between 2002 and 2014, Belgium failed to qualify for five major tournaments in a row, while even the very same Latvia made a surprise appearance in Euro 2004. At one point in June 2007, they were ranked 71st by FIFA between Venezuela and Belarus. In the background, however, there was a reason for optimism. A new generation was breaking through. The golden generation.
So, who were they?
It all starts between the sticks, where Thibaut Courtois (30) has been absolutely fantastic for the past decade. As goalkeepers tend to peak a little later, who knows – the Real Madrid man might still be there in 2030. He has won a total of six league titles in four countries with four different clubs, just won his first Champions League in 2021/22, and has a plethora of individual accolades.
For seven years, central defender Vincent Kompany (36) donned the captain’s armband. He was a true leader both on and off the pitch for Belgium until his international retirement in 2019 and irreplaceable for Manchester City, where he won four Premier League titles. A statue outside the Etihad Stadium means his contribution will never be forgotten.
Still, at City, Kevin De Bruyne (31) has been on a level few others can match ever since moving to Manchester in 2015. Sometimes accused by fans of going missing when it matters most, the superbly skilled midfielder is highly regarded by his coaches and teammates.
Eden Hazard (31) was the face of Belgium for years, but ever since transferring from Chelsea to Real Madrid in 2019, things have gone awry. The fleet-footed winger was at one point compared to both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but injuries have taken a toll. For those that witnessed Eden in his prime, the man running around in Qatar looked like a hoax.
In 2017, at just 24 years of age, Romelu Lukaku (29) became Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer by netting his 31st goal; by now, his record stands at 68 (and counting). A bull of a man in an era where natural central strikers are a rarity, he has, time after time, demonstrated to be lethal when surrounded by the right environment.
Behind those five, there were also players like Simon Mignolet (34), Thomas Vermaelen (37), Jan Vertonghen (35), Toby Alderweireld (33), Thomas Meunier (31), Axel Witsel (33), Marouane Fellaini (35), Mousa Dembele (35), Nacer Chadli (33), Yannick Carrasco (29), Dries Mertens (35) – is that enough? – who else deserves to be mentioned in the same breath? All are fantastic footballers shining on the biggest stages.
And yet, despite all that quality and potential, despite leading the FIFA ranking for five months in 2015-2016 and then for almost four years from September 2018 to March 2022, the third place in World Cup 2018 was the best they could muster as a unit.
In World Cup 2014, they waltzed through the group stages, beating Algeria, Russia, and South Korea. They then overcame the United States despite veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard making a World Cup record of 15 saves, but against Argentina in the quarter-finals, an early goal from Gonzalo Higuain made the difference and sent Belgium home.
Euro 2016 kicked off with a loss to Italy, but victories against Ireland and Sweden took them through in second place; while group winners Italy met Spain next, Belgium had Hungary, Wales, and Northern Ireland in their bracket en route to the semi-finals. After dispatching the Hungarians and taking an early lead against Wales, it ended with heartbreak in what is often regarded as the greatest night in Welsh football history.
That 1:3 loss was the final game in charge for local legend Marc Wilmots, with Spaniard Roberto Martinez brought in to unite the squad. By World Cup 2018, his ideas were implemented, and the team started with five consecutive victories. Panama, Tunisia, and England were beaten in the group stage, while Japan gave them a scare in the round of 16. A heavyweights clash in the quarter-finals saw Belgium defeat Brazil 2:1, but in the semi-finals, France narrowly came out on top.
Despite coming within 180 minutes of World Cup glory, this was seen as a success in Belgium. A 2:0 victory against England in the third-place match meant it was the best-ever result for the Belgian national team. The future still seemed bright.
Euro 2020, played in 2021, could have been their moment – but after once again winning all three group games and then defeating reigning champions Portugal, it all crashed down in the quarter-finals, with later-champions Italy winning 2:1.
And then, in Qatar, they didn’t even make the play-off bracket. They were outplayed by Canada (despite a narrow 1:0 victory), outwitted by Morocco (losing 0:2), and couldn’t break down Croatia (0:0), with Lukaku missing some clear-cut chances. That was it. Game over. Time to go home. But they saw it coming.
“To be fair, I think we had a better chance to win four years ago,” said Hazard when questioned about Belgium’s chances pre-tournament. De Bruyne echoed, stating, “No chance, we’re too old. I think our chance was in 2018. We have a good team, but it is aging.”
What next for Belgium? With head coach Martinez already stepping down and Hazard retiring from international football, a change is certain. Courtois, De Bruyne, and Lukaku might still be there in 2024 or 2026, but it won’t be the golden generation anymore.
“It’s a little shameful they called us the golden generation of Belgium when we didn’t win anything,” Courtois said. “We are not a golden generation. We are a generation that had a lot of talent and great players in several European clubs.”
Maybe that is a good thing. With some young blood and without the added pressure, some of the so-called golden generation can still get crowned.