Belgium's "Golden Generation" hits a rocky road on the way to Rio
The idea that Belgium could have an outside chance of winning the 2014 World Cup might seem strange to anyone who considers its lack of recent success and a domestic league suffering from low budgets and poor stadiums.
However, a look at the current squad shows that for the first time in 20 years there is talent to spare: Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard, Steven Defour, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Démbéle; the list is endless. This sudden blossoming of talent though is more by accident than design. Sadly, there is no Belgian blueprint. Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Démbéle, Ajax's Toby Alderweireld, and PSV's Dries Mertens all came to prominence in the Netherlands; Hazard was sent to France to learn his trade by his father, who also sent his brother Thorgan (18) to Lens for the same reason. But despite that, the scene is potentially set for Belgium to become one of Europe's top nations. Indeed, USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann recently said that Belgium had its best team for a couple of decades.
But there's a caveat. A look at the
First, the team is -- no surprise here -- young. Even with Nuremburg's veteran midfielder Timmy Simons starting the match in Azerbaijan, the average age of the team was 23. That shows a lack of experience at the highest level. The squad is also unbalanced. There's a dearth of top-class full backs in Belgium as opposed to central defense where there is an abundance of quality and experienced performers: Kompany, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Nicolas Lombaerts, Daniel Van Buyten and Alderweireld all play in central defense at some of the top clubs in Europe. Perhaps due in part to players being selected out of position -- central defenders have filled both full back positions in nearly all of the qualifying games -- Belgium has often conceded crucial goals late in the game: Turkey 78th minute, Azerbaijan 86th and Austria in the 93rd.
Furthermore, many players have been distracted and thinking of lucrative transfers away from the Jupiler League. In the summer, Romelu Lukaku joined Chelsea, Witsel went to Benfica and Defour found himself at Porto. Jelle Vossen stayed at Genk despite many rumors and, remarkably, Marvin Ogunjimi is still with the Belgian champions as the paperwork concerning his move to Mallorca arrived at FIFA headquarters seven minutes too late to beat the transfer deadline. As a postscript, Vossen recently said it would soon be his turn to move away from the Jupiler League.
The end result is that the Belgium team that played in Azerbaijan on Sept. 2 consisted of 11 players who all earn their living away from the Jupiler League. In this regard they are similar to their Dutch neighbors, currently second in the world rankings. Maybe it's just a matter of time before Belgium climbs those same rankings, as the Dutch players have had more time to get used to the bigger leagues and have also had three settled years under Bert van Marwijk. Leekens on the other hand, is not everyone's cup of tea. Being Flemish, he's always going to get some stick from the southern half of the country. He's also often failed to make substitutions when they could have freshened up the team. The recent game in Azerbaijan was a case in point and the majority of his changes in the qualifiers have been made after the 75th minute. To be fair to Leekens, injuries and suspensions have undermined his squad selections. He's frequently had to do without the trio of Defour, Fellaini and Vermaelen due to long-term injuries.
Then there is the coach's relationship with Eden Hazard, which has made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Initially, Leekens left Hazard out of the team as he preferred players who were more willing to help out in defense. Then when Hazard was brought back into the fold in the crucial June 3 match with Turkey (which finished in a 1-1 draw), Leekens replaced him after an hour with the energetic Mertens; Hazard immediately got changed and was seen enjoying a hamburger with friends before the match had finished. More seriously, someone at the Belgian FA took the trouble to do a bit of lip-reading and decided that Hazard had insulted Leekens and assistant Marc Wilmots while he was being substituted. The end result was a three-match ban for Hazard, (subsequently reduced to one game).
Whatever the facts, events such as "Hazardgate" has often taken the spotlight away from the team and has caused criticism of the coach (and player) when it was least needed. As for tactics, Leekens has frequently played with a lone striker (in a 4-3-3 formation); one of Lukaku, Vossen or Ogunjimi. Evidence has shown though, that Lukaku -- still an unproven teenager -- never looked totally comfortable in this role for Anderlecht, while Vossen and Ogunjimi have usually played in tandem at Genk. In the two matches when Leekens opted to start with two strikers, Belgium scored a total of six goals (admittedly conceding five).
The current squad has frequently been referred to as the "Golden Generation," despite the fact that they have won nothing and never qualified for a major tournament. Some players have undoubtedly believed the hype. With an average age of 23, that in itself should not come as a great surprise. By the time, the next World Cup comes around, that average age should be up to a more manageable 26. Kompany, Witsel, Hazard, Mertens, Vertonghen and co. should be at their peak. It is to be hoped that Chelsea's gamble with Lukaku pays off as it is not obvious where the goals will come from. There is always a joker in the pack of course and by 2014, Anderlecht's Charly Musonda Junior will be 18. Described by Jan Boskamp, the former Stoke and Anderlecht boss, as a mixture of Xavi and Iniesta, the boy could be the icing on the cake. With the right coach -- and the jury is still out on Leekens -- and a couple of decent fullbacks, Belgium could even emulate its predecessors of 1986 and make a strong World Cup run. Should that be the case, it's safe to assume there will be much dancing in Brussels' Grand Place.