The thing about supposed “Golden Generations” is that they eventually lose their shine. There is an implied lack of permanence, always a beginning and an end.
Eight years ago, Belgium was famously on the ascendency, loaded with young talent and ready breakthrough. Now? There are some scratches and dents starting to show. Even though Belgium (België in Flemish, Belgique in French) has floated around the top two spots in the FIFA rankings for years, there is a growing case for the shine coming off. Belgium’s final warm-up game against Egypt — a 2-1 loss — didn’t ease any of those concerns.
Their 2022 World Cup opener opponent Canada appears to be on the other end of that cycle. Belgium’s median age is 29, the joint-oldest in the tournament. I think back to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when Belgium made its first World Cup appearance since 2002. That was the beginning of Belgium’s current Golden Generation on the world stage.
Is this the beginning of Canada’s Golden Generation? Is this the end of Belgium’s?
This time around, it is Canada who will be trying to make waves after a long spell out of the tournament. Canada hasn’t made a World Cup appearance since 1986, where they bottomed the group without scoring a goal. While the long lull between then and now was surely on the minds of those players throughout qualifying, that is now ancient history. It won’t hold them back, but propel them forward.
Les Rouges topped qualifying in the same Concacaf region that includes the United States and Mexico. They scored more goals (23) and conceded fewer (7) than any other team in Concacaf throughout the qualifying process.
From the player personnel perspective, the two sides are disparate.
Eden Hazard is no longer the player he was during his time at Chelsea or at the 2018 World Cup in Russia when he helped the Red Devils make a run to the semifinals. Injuries and shattered confidence have severely negated his influence on the field for Real Madrid. This tournament with Belgium is supposed to be a reminder of what he can do, and I think anyone who saw the little magician in his prime will hope that comes to fruition.
Belgium will be without Romelu Lukaku for its first two games against Canada and Morocco due to injury, according to a report from AFP. As the country’s all-time leading goalscorer with 68 goals at 29 years old, he will be a huge miss for manager Roberto Martinez. The striker has been dealing with injury issues during his loan stint at Inter Milan this season. He’s only made five appearances and scored two goals. He also endured a tough season at Chelsea last year.
Defensively, Belgium has aged significantly without looking toward the future. Vincent Kompany made his last appearance in 2019 after serving as captain since 2010. Toby Alderweireld is 33 and Jan Vertonghen is 35, and the iconic duo are no longer in the Premier League. In certain situations where soccer IQ and intelligent positioning can’t bail them out, the pace factor will surely lean in favor toward their opponents.
Roberto Martinez has led the team for six years now, which is an extraordinary amount of time in the modern game. Speaking with my cousin in Belgium, I learned there has been a great deal of criticism directed toward Martinez. This will probably be his last tournament at the helm for Belgium. A new generation of defenders will probably coincide with that change.
John Herdman took charge of Canada in January of 2018. He’s effectively worked with this group of players since the last World Cup to prepare them for this one. The ideas and relationships are relatively fresh. And though Alphonso Davies has been the face of Canada’s resurgence, he is doubtful to make his World Cup debut against Belgium due to a hamstring injury. Even so, Canada has other young talents like Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan (who, coincidentally, now plays for Belgium’s Club Brugge).
It will be a tough game for Canada, and it would be an upset should they get a win. But like the United States — and unlike Belgium — they are in the infancy of the next stage of their life cycle.
The 2014 Belgium team made me fall in love with soccer. Part of that was because I was in Belgium visiting family during the World Cup, and I got to experience a soccer culture that is well developed. It pains me to say, but I think Belgium’s Golden Generation missed its best chance at living up to those expectations. 2018 was that year. Now, the star players who have made up the Red Devils’ DNA since then are retired, getting older, or not the player they once were.
I think Canada’s players have a chance to announce to the world that they might have a Golden Generation of their own. If not a Golden Generation, then maybe some Golden players.
I’m just hoping they don’t do that against my Red Devils.