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Internationals

The End Is Near For Belgium

Belgium's midfielder Kevin De Bruyne (R) celebrates with teammates after opening the scoring during the Nations League League A Group 4 football match between Belgium and Wales at The King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels on September 22, 2022.
John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

It’s almost time for the 2022 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our World Cup previews here.


Is there a more fitting group for the designation “golden generation” than Belgium’s? Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Thibaut Courtois are probably the four best Belgian soccer players of all time, and they were all born within two years of each other.

And those are just the biggest names. Yannick Carrasco, Michy Batshuayi, Thorgan Hazard, and Thomas Meunier were all also born between the years 1991 and 1993. Open that window just a little and you can add Toby Alderweireld, Christian Benteke, Axel Witsel, Divock Origi, and Adnan Januzaj.

Since bursting onto the scene in 2014, this special generation has been the driving force behind the most successful run in Belgium’s history. Two of the three best-ever Belgian World Cup performances belong to this group, which got to the quarterfinals in 2014 and the semis in 2018. (The other deep Belgian run was a trip to the semifinals in 1986.) The expectations for this generation are such that when Belgium lost in the quarterfinals of the 2016 and 2021 Euros—a stage the country had only ever reached twice before—it was seen as a massive disappointment. Today, the Belgian golden generation is on the brink of its third World Cup, where it once again has a legitimate chance to win the competition.

This World Cup will probably be the last one for many members of the generation. To call it “bittersweet” probably undersells the stakes. It is surely sweet that we get to see De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku, Courtois and the rest, still either at or near the height of their powers, giving it one last go in search for the silverware that would consecrate the generation’s goldenness. But more than “bitter,” Belgium’s future prospects in the post-golden age are closer to terrifying. That’s because the drop-off from the current, aging generation to the next one appears at the moment to be chasmic.

Almost all of Belgium’s key players heading to Qatar are 29 or older. Even the “younger” big contributors aren’t so young; midfielder Youri Tielemans is both the youngest likely starter and is the only current Belgian outside of the golden generation who seems to have true world-class potential, and he’s already 25. The Red Devils will bring two of their most exciting young talents to Qatar in the form of Charles De Ketelaere (21) and Jérémy Doku (20). But today’s Belgium youth movement cannot compare to the one the golden generation sparked back in 2014, when so many of them earned major roles on the team in their early 20s.

Belgium itself is no stranger to golden generations followed by fallow periods. The national team’s heyday in the 80s and 90s were led by a couple back-to-back cadres of great Belgian players, the likes of Jean-Marie Pfaff, Jan Ceulemans, Franky Van der Elst, Marc Wilmots, and Enzo Scifo. During that stretch Belgium was the runner-up at Euro 80, was a semifinalists at the 1986 World Cup, and qualified for six consecutive World Cups between 1982 and 2002, after missing out on six of the previous eight tournaments. After 2002, when the last vestiges of the old golden generations had finally vanished, Belgium failed to qualify for the next two World Cups and the next three Euro tournaments. It wasn’t until today’s generation picked things back up in 2014 that Belgian soccer came alive again.

The news isn’t all bad for Belgium. Though many of the stalwarts who’ve been guiding the team for the past eight years will start disappearing when this tournament is over, some of them will surely still hang around for a while. Lukaku isn’t all that old at 29, and De Bruyne shows no signs of slowing even at 31. Plus, Tielemans should only grow in ability and influence, and it would be cool to see how good a 27-year-old late bloomer like Leandro Troussard can be when handed the reins, and De Ketelaere and Doku both could be real studs in the near future.

It’s not really that doomsday for Belgium is right on the horizon. Even for such a small country, Belgium has a strong domestic league with a proven history of cultivating talents. The national team isn’t going away, and especially as the World Cup participants continue to balloon (48 teams will qualify for the 2026 edition), there’s no reason to think Belgium will miss out on major tournaments in the coming years.

Still, it is worth keeping in mind how rare and amazing the present golden generation has been, and also how unlikely we are to see anything similar once these guys start to fade away. The end of this era of Belgium is coming, and it’s right around the corner. But with any luck, the 2022 World Cup will give them the bright and shiny conclusion the players all deserve.

Who Is Their Main Guy?

Kevin De Bruyne is a machine. He has about four or five passing techniques that he simply drills over and over and over again in every single match, to preposterous results. De Bruyne has found in Pep Guardiola the perfect manager to exploit his uncanny regularity, as the Spaniard’s coaching philosophy revolves around putting his players in constantly replicable situations of advantage. The results are, again, preposterous.

Every Manchester City match is practically an unending bombardment of De Bruyne’s right foot catapulting inch-perfect ball after inch-perfect ball. It’s the same story every game: there’s the early cross in transition from the right half-space up and through to the left half-space; there’s the cut-back after a run to the touchline in between the right back and the right-sided center back; there’s the launched cross from the corner of the penalty box to the back post. If there was ever a question of whether art can be born of repetition and predictability, any highlight collection of Kevin De Bruyne passes would answer it definitively.

Who Is Their Main Scoring Guy?

I’m a big fan of Belgium and of all their individual guys, so I would like the national team to do well at this World Cup. But the one player I’m most rooting for is Romelu Lukaku.

More than any of his peers, Lukaku could really use another great World Cup. The others have all had plenty of success: De Bruyne will go down as the greatest Belgian player of all time, Hazard is a highly decorated Chelsea legend, and Courtois’s several Premier League, La Liga, and Champions League titles should insulate him from any hard feelings about the years he spent while being criminally underrated. But Lukaku, despite being one of the best strikers of his generation, has found concrete success a little harder to come by.

In terms of trophies, Lukaku only has the 2010 Belgian league title, the 2021 Serie A title, and the 2021 Club World Cup to his name. He has made high-profile, expectation-laden transfers to Chelsea, Manchester United, Inter, then back to Chelsea, and then back to Inter again, and really only one of them has totally worked out. Many of his best years were spent in an admirable, entertaining, but ultimately irrelevant Everton team. The guy is ridiculously skilled, has a great scoring record, and yet he still still hasn’t had that crowning achievement that would really solidify his standing in the game.

This is why I’d like Lukaku and Belgium to do something special in Qatar. It’s a little tough because Lukaku is coming into the tournament gimpy with a hamstring injury, so it’s not like he’s in peak form. Nevertheless, he’s still a great player, surrounded by a very good team, and plays beside a chance-creating robot named Kevin. He can definitely still make it happen.

Where’s The Beef?

Which teams or players does Belgium not like? Do Belgium’s players like each other? We investigate their potential enemies.

Belgium is geographically and culturally wedged right in between France and the Netherlands. As such, those are its two big rivals. The match between the Belgians and the Dutch is referred to as the Low Countries derby, and it is the third-most frequently played fixture in international history, behind only Austria vs. Hungary and Argentina vs. Uruguay. The Belgium–France game is known as le Match Sympatique. As you might surmise, neither rivalries are all that heated.

All three of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands are big favorites to top their respective groups in Qatar. If that’s how it plays out, it means Belgium could meet France in the semifinals, where the two met in the 2018 World Cup, and could face the Netherlands in the final.

Most Likely To Go David Ospina Or James Rodríguez Mode

Who is Belgium’s best candidate for a breakout performance that earns them a career-changing transfer? Might this potential post-tournament transfer go well, like when Colombia’s James Rodríguez went to Real Madrid after starring in the 2014 World Cup? Or could it go poorly, like when Colombia’s David Ospina went to Arsenal after starring in the 2014 World Cup?

Why is Youri Tielemans still at Leicester City? It’s not such an easy question to answer. For years now Tielemans has been one of the Premier League’s best midfielders playing for clubs outside the league’s Big Six. Generally, when a young player proves himself in the EPL at one of its secondary teams, he is quickly vacuumed up by one of the big boys. It is true that Leicester is itself pretty rich, and has in recent years been able to retain talent by paying competitive salaries and posing an earnest challenge to the Big Six’s hold on the top spots in the table. But now, as Leicester has endured a couple relatively down seasons, and as Tielemans nears the end of his contract, it feels a little strange that the Belgian hasn’t already been snatched up by a bigger team enamored by his considerable talents.

And his talents are indeed considerable. Tielemans’s broad range of skills make for a sizzling highlight reel. He’s nifty on the dribble, he can stroke a pretty cross-field pass, he has great vision and technique that allows him to see difficult passing lanes and send the ball through them, and he has a hell of a long shot on him. He can play high, low, and in between. He’s 25 years old, just entering what is the midfielder’s traditional prime age. On paper, he appears to have it all.

So, again, why is Tielemans still at Leicester? One answer is that he won’t be for long. Arsenal was reportedly very interested in bringing him in this past summer, and though an official bid mysteriously never appeared, Tielemans’s contract is set to expire at the end of this season. It does make some sense for big teams to wait out the Belgian’s contract and then try to sign him on a free transfer next summer.

The more interesting answer to Tielemans’s puzzling persistence at Leicester though is that maybe he’s not actually as good as his highlights might imply. Though he can at times pull off every trick or pass you could ask of a midfielder, he doesn’t do most of them with much regularity. He can sneak his way out of tight spaces with the ball at his feet, but he doesn’t take on defenders or drive the ball up the pitch all that often. He can stroke a pretty cross-field ball, but his long-passing stats aren’t impressive. He can dominate an individual passing sequence by moving himself, the ball, and his teammates where he’d like them all to go, but he doesn’t do so with the frequency of the game’s best organizing midfielders. He certainly is versatile, is strong when pressing, scores beautiful long-distance goals, and has a knack for the unlocking pass in the final third. But it’s those other skills, the ones he flashes but hasn’t yet sustained, that mark a truly great midfielder.

There are two ways Tielemans’s future could go. In one, he continues on the same path, either at Leicester or somewhere else, and reveals himself to be a strong mid-table-level player who lacks the consistency and concentration to star for a top club. In another, he moves to a bigger team, is inspired to raise his level, and turns into a real world-beater by figuring out how to regularly do what he presently does only intermittently. This, coupled with his presence in one of the cooler national teams at this World Cup, makes him a great candidate to go either James Rodríguez or David Ospina Mode.

David Ospina Probability Score: 81.3

James Rodríguez Probability Score: 74.1

Fun Geographical Fact

Like its fellow Low Country, the Netherlands, parts of Belgium’s land sit below sea level. Some of these areas were once underwater but have since been dried and made livable, arable land. These areas are called polders, and they are made possible by a series of dikes and pumps that keep the water at bay. This video explains how it works:

Humans sure are something!

Good Flag Or Bad Flag?

Flag of Belgium.

I have to echo Patrick and Tom, the three vertical stripes look is generally boring, but the colors here are so strong that it makes for a good flag here. I do prefer Germany’s, though; the cascade of colors descending from bar to bar hits my eye better.

Good Anthem Or Bad Anthem?

The full version above is really good, it’s got a lot of musical movement. But the neutered version you’ll hear before the matches in Qatar loses everything that makes the full version cool.

Notable Moment In World Cup History

The pinnacle of the first Belgian golden generation was probably its shock run to the 1986 World Cup semifinals. The Red Devils narrowly made it out of the group stage by having the best record of the teams that finished third in their groups. From there, they beat the Soviet Union in a high-scoring round of 16 match that went to extra time and finished 4–3. Next, the Belgians eked past Spain in a penalty shootout. It was the first time the country had made it out of the group stage at a World Cup, and there they were in the semifinals.

I will assume that when you see “1986” and “World Cup” somewhere in the same sentence, your mind immediately goes to Diego Maradona. Sure enough, it was Maradona’s Argentina that awaited Belgium in the semis. Though his two goals against England are obviously the headliners of that World Cup—with names like “the Hand of God” and “the Goal of the Century,” how could those two not overshadow everything else?—Maradona’s performance against Belgium in the semifinal might have been his best one of the entire tournament. By the final whistle there, he’d scored two more goals, taken seven shots, created six chances, and completed eight of 10 dribbles in the 2–0 Argentina victory. Plus, the iconic goal of that match wasn’t too shabby, either.

Getting so close to the final only to come up short had to have been tough for the Belgian players. Then again, there’s not too many who can say they witnessed arguably the single greatest one-match performance of soccer’s greatest individual tournament performance from the closest possible vantage point. There are worse fates in life.

How Can They Win The World Cup?

This World Cup has three big favorites: Brazil, Argentina, and France. After that, there’s a group of six teams that, if things break right, have a totally realistic shot at winning. Belgium is one of those six. In my mind, things breaking right for the Belgians mostly relates to health and form. If Lukaku can recover enough from his injury to start matches at least by the knockout rounds, if the other older guys can avoid getting hurt, and if Lukaku and Eden Hazard can hit the levels they were accustomed to in previous years (for Lukaku it goes back to when he was fully healthy at Inter a couple seasons ago, while for Hazard that goes back to before he joined Real Madrid), then Belgium could definitely win the World Cup.

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