Only eight countries have ever won a men’s World Cup. Depending on who manufactures your globe, that leaves something on the order of 187 loser nations. If Belgium ever had a chance to leave the latter camp and join the elite ranks of international soccer champs, it was going to be in 2018. After years of disappointing missteps, Belgium’s lauded “Golden Generation” was playing with overdue cohesiveness and swagger. A thrilling run in Russia fell short, however, when it lost to France 1–0 in Tuesday’s semifinal. Welcome back to the 187 Club, gang. Those of us here in the U.S. have kept your seat warm for you.
Thanks to that annoyingly sticky “Golden Generation” tag, it’s hard to appreciate this Belgium team right now. It’s too easy to look in the rearview at squads that wasted opportunities in previous tournaments, just as it’s tempting to add four years to the ages of Belgium’s stars to determine if it has any chance in Qatar (sorry, 32-year-old Vincent Kompany). Ignoring Belgium’s ghosts of World Cups past and future, a proper exit interview should consider just how this specific team will be remembered (if at all).
For a country to fall short in the World Cup and still be celebrated, it helps to be overlooked going into the tournament. Cameroon’s run to the quarterfinals in 1990 made it one of the most beloved teams in history, as did South Korea’s shocking semifinal berth in 2002. Belgium, meanwhile, caught no one by surprise. The Red Devils were often described as a dark horse heading into Russia, but, in reality, they were barely a light-gray horse. If anything, they fell one game short of seriously exceeding expectations.
If you’re looking for the most beloved losers in the history of the World Cup, go no further than the 1974 Dutch national team. “Clockwork Orange” lost to West Germany in the final, but it introduced the world to “Total Football,” a revolutionary brand of soccer wherein players fluidly swap positions while in possession and swarm opponents when not. The team was led by bonafide soccer genius Johan Cruyff, who spent the group stages inventing jukes. It was the combination of superlative star power and geometrically profound teamwork that made that Dutch squad legendary. If anything, losing only enhanced their mystique.
Belgium didn’t introduce the world to a new kind of soccer in Russia, but it did produce enough lightning-fast counterattacks to leave a mark on the tournament. The last-minute winner against Japan in the Round of 16 was one of the most thrilling goals in recent memory.
Belgium followed it in the next round with an equally fearsome first-half blitz against tournament favorites Brazil.
For two halves over two games, Belgium produced the kind of stuff that memories are made of. It wasn’t Total Football—and Kevin De Bruyne, while amazing, isn’t quite Cruyff—but the Red Devils had planted the seeds of something truly special. Sadly, it couldn’t stick around long enough to make them grow into anything beyond a spot in Saturday’s third-place place match, a consolation kick-around that’s the very definition of forgettable.
De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, and Eden Hazard are all 27 years old or younger, and so a glorified friendly against the loser of Croatia-England probably won’t be their last World Cup moment. They have a legitimate shot at doing something special in 2022, generational windows be damned. Hopefully that Belgium team of the future can make it count, lest we all forget about the current squad’s truncated run at glory.