Every World Cup is somebody’s last chance.
There were the aging stars of the Ivory Coast in 2014. England in 2010. Portugal in 2006. So on and so forth, all the way back to star forward Matthias Sindelar’s Austria in 1934. One imagines that at the time it wasn’t saddled with the golden generation tag, the soccer community’s favored label for a promising cohort of players expected to make an impact on the international scene. Austria was just a good team. No one knew when it finished fourth that year that there wouldn’t be a continuing cycle of dominant Austrian teams.
This year the weight of potential hangs over Belgium. After walloping Tunisia on Saturday, this Belgium team has now won its first two games by a combined score of 8-2. It’s a remarkable collection of players—but it’s poorly assembled. It’s enough to make you want to call customer service for them, like they’ve acquired a dresser to piece together that came with an extra drawer but not the rails the others are supposed to slide on.
Kevin De Bruyne was the chief creator for Manchester City’s record-setting Premier League season. Eden Hazard led the attack on the previous year’s champion, Chelsea. Romelu Lukaku, who is tied with Cristiano Ronaldo as this tournament’s top scorer, was worth $100 million to Manchester United last summer. Napoli forward Dries Mertens was named to the latest Serie A team of the season. So was Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, and Belgium manager Roberto Martinez didn’t even bring him to Russia. He cited tactical reasons, but it’s probably more accurate to say they just don’t like each other.
The team’s trouble starts on the other end of the field. All three of their starting center defenders, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, are among the best in the world at their position. So far so good, except the latter two missed significant portions of past season to injury, and Kompany got hurt again in a warm-up friendly. He has been replaced with Celtic’s Dedryck Boyata for the first two games, which is a downgrade roughly equivalent to that between Manchester City and Celtic.
Those defenders have a ton of ground to cover on their possibly-not-match-fit legs. Belgium’s more defensive midfielder in Nainggolan’s absence, the excellently named Axel Witsel, has spent his career in Belgium, Portugal, Russia, and now China, and he prefers playing farther forward anyway. Their wingbacks include a Paris Saint-Germain rotation player, Thomas Meunier, and a converted winger, Yannick Carrasco, who went from scoring in the Champions League final to the Chinese Super League in less than two years and had never played a defensive role until manager Roberto Martinez decided he was the best fit there for Belgium.
Basically, if Belgium wants to win this tournament, it has go for it. Its matches should play out like the climactic fight from Rocky IV, 15 rounds of devastating haymakers and defenses designed around cocking back to throw the next one. The Red Devils even have the option of bringing Marouane Fellaini—the soccer equivalent of a set of brass knuckles—off the bench.
Like Panama and Tunisia, it’s unlikely that a newly patient England will come out trying to trade punches with the Belgians in their final group game. Belgium may have to advance to the quarterfinals to get an opponent who will come out looking to hit it back. Whether it has enough ballast to withstand the counterpunch will determine whether its tournament is a success or its players become another disappointing golden generation.
Which is, after all, the point. The golden generation sobriquet has never been about results, but potential—especially thwarted potential. The term has become loaded with the prospect of future failure. It ends up being self-canceling. By the time you accomplish enough to live up to it, people mostly stop using it to describe you.
The Spanish and German teams that won the past two World Cups aren’t treated as an arbitrarily bracketed set of birthdays, but as the result of the development programs and tactical continuity at some of the world’s biggest clubs. Only in the build-up to the tournament, now that it’s time for them to do it again, has the name come roaring back. “Last stand for stars of Spain’s golden generation,” read an AP headline, even though only six of Spain’s World Cup winners are on the roster for 2018, and their golden generation was already declared dead in both 2014 and 2016. “Germany’s ‘golden generation’ primed for World Cup defense,” read another, even though the Germans return only nine players and have put foundational pieces like Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Miroslav Klose out to pasture.
The most famous golden generations—the groups still known as such—are the ones who failed to live up to their promise. The Portugal of Luís Figo ended up making the 2004 European Championships finals and the 2006 World Cup semifinals, but those results are dwarfed in the collective consciousness by the team’s failure to qualify in 1998 and its group-stage exit in 2002. (Not to mention that it lost the 2004 final at home to Greece, the biggest underdog champion in international soccer history.) The England of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard doesn’t even have those accomplishments to hang its hat on, just a pathological fear of penalty kicks and a national psyche shattered at one point by a golf umbrella.
Belgium has enough players based in England to be aware of the comparison. This is either their best shot or last shot at the World Cup for the foreseeable future. Many of their promising offensive players are young enough to maybe catch the sunset of their primes next time in Qatar, but there isn’t yet a crop of up-and-coming defenders pushing the aging and injury-prone Kompany, Vertonghen, and Alderweireld for their spots yet. If those players don’t emerge, Belgium could end up even more preposterously unbalanced four years from now, as top-heavy as Mr. Incredible.
And when 2022 rolls around, that version of the team will still be expected to live up to the promise a few of its members once showed on a totally different squad. It has to be somebody’s last chance.