GRAMold generation. Eyes should roll your eyes whenever that loaded description is mentioned in Belgium circles, but there it is, from none other than Eden Hazard, in a FIFA promo video for the World Cup in which the Real Madrid man insists that this incarnation has paid off thanks to a third-place finish in Russia four years ago. Roberto Martinez agrees, though that’s hardly a big surprise for a master of the positive spin who once described an Everton player’s broken leg as “a great opportunity” and every set of results that goes against Wigan in his fight for the survival of the Premier League as good for its players. ‘ mindset. They were relegated the next day courtesy of a 4-1 defeat at Arsenal.
However, when reviewing Belgium’s performance in 2018, it seems rude to dismiss Hazard and Martinez’s point entirely. Beating England for the second time in the tournament to win the third-place playoff meant something, as evidenced by the jubilant reaction on the bench and on the pitch. It was Belgium’s best World Cup finish, eclipsing the achievement of the generation of Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets and Jean-Marie Pfaff who finished fourth in Mexico in 1986. And it meant a lot to the thousands of fans who packed the Grand-Place in Brussels, dyeing the air black, yellow and red with their flares as they gave the team a triumphant homecoming. There was no sign of disappointment that day with a golden generation unmasked as bronze.
Four years later, Belgium once again brings expectations to a World Cup, although accompanied by reservations rather than the conviction that this talented group can go one step further. Several of the original cast have left, including Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembélé, plus Nacer Chadli, who underscored the value of a selfless team player by scoring the 94th-minute winner that sealed a thrilling 3-2 comeback victory over Japan in the last 16.
Several aging originals remain, mostly focused on defense, where Martinez continues to rely on 33-year-old Toby Alderweireld and 35-year-old Jan Vertonghen. Last summer’s European Championship brought a quarter-final loss to eventual winners Italy, when Belgium ran out of options and ideas. This year has resulted in two defeats for the Netherlands in the Nations League, the first a complete 4-1 reverse at home after Romelu Lukaku left injured with the game goalless. “This is what we needed to prepare for the World Cup,” Martínez said, true to form, of Belgium’s first loss to the Netherlands in 25 years.
Doubts remain about the fitness of Lukaku, who has made only two brief substitute appearances for Inter since picking up a hamstring in the summer and has been receiving daily treatment in preparation for the day’s opener against Canada. Belgium’s prospects are closely aligned with the availability of their top scorer, but the belief in him is valid, as are the concerns. Martinez’s team remains packed with title-winning experience, possesses world-class talent and an emerging crop that hopes to replenish the golden stock. They include Amadou Onana, who Everton signed in a deal worth up to 40 million euros from Lille this summer and who exudes confidence that his first World Cup can result in triumph in Qatar.
“Why not? That’s the ambition we have,” says the 21-year-old. “We have a very good mix. We have very experienced players; I’m talking about Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu and others. I think “We have a great mix. Speaking of pressure, I don’t feel pressure. We have a great team. Of course we have to take it very seriously and not just think: ‘We’re Belgium and we’ll make it anyway’, but I’m pretty confident.”
De Bruyne is one of the main reasons for Onana’s optimism. The younger midfielder reveres his older teammate, and whoever is in his company. “He is one of the best players in the world. That is my opinion,” says Onana. “For me, and I’ve been saying this is the Everton dressing room, he does things that no one else can do. He would give him the Ballon d’Or. If it depended on me, he would give it to him. He’s a crazy player and I enjoy having the opportunity to share the field with him.”
The Manchester City playmaker is 31 years old and has indicated that this could be his last chance to win a World Cup. That’s certainly true for Vertonghen and Alderweireld, while Courtois and Lukaku, who will be 34 and 33 respectively when the 2026 tournament kicks off, may also look to Qatar as a last sendoff in their prime. However, Onana believes that the golden age could last as far as the United States, Canada and Mexico within four years. “We will have to ask them if it is their last World Cup,” he says. “But I would love to continue playing with them because they are great, great players. And they are great professionals.”
Onana admits that it will be the realization of “a dream of playing in a World Cup” and the culmination of a plan that involved moving to the Premier League, consolidating at Everton and winning selection for Martínez’s team. There is a possibility that he will face his Everton colleague Jordan Pickford and the England number 1 in the final. “I’ll score a goal for him,” he laughs. “I’m kidding, but why not?”