First, you have to stop, stand back and appreciate what has been achieved. This Belgium team reached just its second World Cup semifinal ever, matching its deepest-ever run from 1986. And this team was superior to that one in every way. That incarnation of the Red Devils squeaked through the group stage and clawed into the semifinals. This one dazzled and roared in all but its quarterfinal upset of mighty Brazil.
Going into Tuesday’s bout with France, it had three attackers in contention for player of the tournament in Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, coalescing in concert to push a talented generation to the last four, before being eked out 1-0 on Tuesday.
And at some point here, we have to acknowledge once again that Belgium has just 11.5 million citizens – about half the New York Metropolitan area. The correlation between the number of your citizens and the quality of your national soccer team is demonstrably thin, but it bears mentioning when the number is as small as the Belgians’ was. Theirs was an extraordinary achievement.
Therein lay the issue.
After Belgium survived against an overwhelming Brazil 2-1 in the quarterfinals, having spent much of the game defending with its back against the wall, there was a broad sense of relief back home. The golden generation had done it. They’d made it into the semifinals and outperformed the 2014 team – largely made up of the same personnel – which had stranded in the quarterfinals. Their potential had been reached.
But had it? This Belgian team was more than capable of beating France on Tuesday. It hogged possession – with France’s implicit permission – and but for a handsome Samuel Umtiti header from a corner giving Les Bleus their slim lead in the 51st minute, were the better team all night. It was telling that France spent the end of the game absorbing pressure and killing off the remaining time with all manner of shenanigans. This was a favored France, trying to ride out the storm against the Belgian underdogs.
Belgium had the better of the chances. France had an ironclad defense and the unimpeachable Hugo Lloris in goal. Belgium lacked a little luck.
At the 2010 World Cup, then-Dutch assistant coach Frank de Boer explained to me the difference between the 1998 and 2010 editions of the Netherlands. In 1998, he explained, they’d been delighted to have reached the semifinals, and summarily lost to Brazil. In 2010, they’d expected to make it to the final, and did, losing to Spain in extra time.
That’s awfully anecdotal, of course, and the Netherlands lost to Brazil on penalties, after all. But the psychological warning signs were there. Belgium felt like everything they did from the Brazil win on was a bonus. France saw this semifinal as a gateway to the final.
Plainly, this a missed opportunity for the Belgians. They’d been playing well all tournament. They’d overcome their tactical differences with manager Roberto Martinez, for the most part, and figured out a way of making the best of the soaring abilities of all three of its star forwards.
What’s more, they’d outplayed France. But manager Didier Deschamps’ cynicism won out. He was happy to surrender the initiative and the aesthetic upper hand and scrape through. France didn’t want to prove anything in the semis. It just wanted to survive. It wasn’t playing with house money. It wasn’t there yet.
This is a missed opportunity most of all because Belgium’s golden generation is aging. While Lukaku is only 25 and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois 26, and therefore good for another World Cup cycle or two, much of the team’s core isn’t. Vincent Kompany is 32 and has been ravaged by injuries in recent years. Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens are 31, and Moussa Dembele is about to be. Marouane Fellaini is 30 and Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel are 29.
Most of them will have aged out in four years – or should have, anyway. But worse still, Hazard and De Bruyne are 27. That may not sound very old, but in modern soccer, decline tends to set in during your late 20s – whereas it used to be in your early 30s. That’s all the more true when you’re a lithe attacking midfielder who spent endless afternoons and nights getting kicked, slowly eroding your cartilage and stretching your ligaments, inevitably take a toll on your speed. Both of them are that.
They’re at an age where they won’t get better in the next four years. More likely, they’ll regress. Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. But even if they stay at their current level, and Lukaku doesn’t crash into the sudden fall-off you tend to see in teenage prodigies when they’re a decade into their careers, their supporting cast will be thin. The Belgian defense was already shaky in Russia, forcing Martinez to come up with all sorts of patches at left- and right-back, where he had desperately few natural options. That problem won’t go away anytime soon either.
But before the next World Cup, there will be another Euro. How about that then?
That might be a chance for this Belgian team to win something. Except that it’s unlikely that Germany and Spain will be as feckless as they were in Russia. And young France and England teams will likely have grown stronger by then.
In international soccer even more than in the club game, you live in windows of opportunity. You can’t buy your way out of problems. You’re beholden to the talent that emerges organically. There’s no stopping the clock.
This was Belgium’s chance. Now, the golden generation will, at best, get bronze on Saturday’s third-place game.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.