The 2018 World Cup has been full of surprises. Germany, Portugal and Spain have all exited the competition at the hands of less-fancied opposition. It was therefore a feeling of “here we go again” when Japan led Belgium 2-0 by the 65th minute of their Round of 16 clash on Monday. But Belgium came back to claim a win in what has been labeled the best match of Russia 2018 so far.
Much like Spain before the magical four-year period between 2008 and 2012, Belgium have underachieved. No, the Red Devils have not always had the best pool of players in international competitions. But in recent times, the country’s national team has been one of the most endowed.
The “Golden Generation”
Some call them the golden generation. Take a closer look and you may understand why. The roll call features the crème de la crème in modern football. Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtoise, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Meunier, and Dres Mertens, to name a few. And they ply their trades with some of Europe’s biggest club sides.
Going by this roster alone, one would be forgiven for believing that they should dominate international football. Unfortunately, as far as winning tournaments is concerned, that is far from the truth. The team has always come up short.
Having been at the very first edition of the World Cup in 1930, the Belgians have come a long way. But they have also been very disappointing. The team failed to make it past the first round of their initial five World Cup appearances. In fact, it was not until 1970 before the country won its first match at the tournament.
However, a fourth-place finish in the 1986 edition, in Mexico, promised greater things to come. That promise has yet to be realised, as subsequent performances have fallen short of that mark. But that was until the golden generation reached maturity.
There is renewed belief the team is can finally get to the promised land with this set of players. In the 2014 edition of the tournament, the team got to the quarter final.
The 2018 World Cup is shaping out to be Belgium’s time
After taking maximum points from their group stage matches with wins against Panama, Tunisia and England, the Belgians had made a statement of intent.
But such were the expectations in recent competitions like Euro 2016, in France, when they failed to deliver. So when the hardworking Japanese team led 2-0 by the 65th minute of their Round of 16 clash in Rostov, many felt it was nothing new, as they had seen the team capitulate before. But there was something different this time around.
The Belgians fought back from two goals down with 25 minutes left to play and not only leveled, but won the game. That is the character of a team ready to right previous wrongs.
However, impressive as the performance against Japan was, that will pale in comparison to their test against their next opposition. Brazil lie in wait in the quarter final. The five-time winners have it all: experience, self-belief, star names. Plus, they have Neymar.
Messi and Ronaldo may have flattered to deceive in the tournament, but Neymar is the real deal. The world’s most expensive player is hitting all the right notes with his Brazilian side as they march on towards their sixth world title.
As much as the team relies on the Paris Saint-Germain man to create the magic upfront, they are solid at the back. With just a single goal conceded in the tournament in four matches so far, Belgium need to be at their very best to get one over the Selecao.
An average of three goals per game
Fortunately for the Red Devils, goal scoring has not been one of their problems in Russia. They lead the way as the highest scoring team in the competition, with 12 strikes in four matches. That’s an average of three goals per game.
In De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku they have players capable of unlocking stubborn defences. And if things prove too difficult, there is always the dependable Marouane Fellaini to call upon from the bench.
For me, the most likely scenario will be that they overcome the Brazilians at the Kazan Arena on Friday and take another step closer to achieving their long-overdue ambition of winning the World Cup.