Sport

Belgium’s emerging stars can replenish their golden stock

Golden generation. The eyes must roll every time that loaded description is mentioned in Belgium circles but there it is, from Eden Hazard no less, in a Fifa promotional video for the World Cup in which the Real Madrid man insists this incarnation has delivered on account of a third-place finish in Russia four years ago. Roberto Martínez concurs, although that is no great surprise from a master of positive spin who once described an Everton player’s broken leg as “a great opportunity” and every set of results going against Wigan in their fight for Premier League survival as good for his players’ mindset. They were relegated the next day courtesy of a 4-1 defeat at Arsenal.

Revisit Belgium’s performance in 2018, however, and it does seem churlish to dismiss Hazard’s and Martínez’s point entirely. Beating England for a second time in the tournament to win the third-place playoff meant something, as the jubilant reaction in the dugout and on the pitch demonstrated. It meant Belgium’s best placing at a World Cup, eclipsing the achievement of the Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets and Jean-Marie Pfaff generation who finished fourth in Mexico in 1986. And it meant a great deal to the thousands of fans who packed the Grand-Place in Brussels, turning the air black, yellow and red with their flares as they gave the squad a triumphant homecoming. There was no sign of disappointment that day with a golden generation being unmasked as bronze.

Four years on Belgium bring expectation into a World Cup again, albeit accompanied by reservations rather than the conviction this gifted group can go one step further. Several of the original cast members have gone – including Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembélé, plus Nacer Chadli, who underlined the value of a selfless squad player when scoring the 94th-minute winner that sealed a thrilling 3-2 comeback win over Japan in the last 16.

Several ageing originals remain – mainly concentrated in defence where Martínez remains reliant on the 33-year-old Toby Alderweireld and 35-year-old Jan Vertonghen. Last summer’s European Championship brought defeat in the quarter-finals by the eventual winners Italy, when Belgium ran out of options and ideas. This year has brought two defeats by the Netherlands in the Nations League, the first a comprehensive 4-1 reverse on home soil after Romelu Lukaku had departed injured with the game goalless. “This is what we needed to prepare for the World Cup,” said Martínez, true to form, of Belgium’s first loss to the Netherlands for 25 years.

Doubts continue to surround the fitness of Lukaku, who has made only two brief substitute appearances for Internazionale since injuring a hamstring in the summer and has been receiving daily treatment in the buildup to day’s opener against Canada. Belgium’s prospects are closely aligned to the availability of their leading goalscorer but there is validity to their belief as well as the concerns. Martínez’s squad remains packed with title-winning experience, possesses some world-class talent and an emerging crop who hope to replenish the golden stock. They include Amadou Onana, whom Everton signed in a deal worth up to €40m from Lille this summer and who exudes confidence that his first World Cup can result in the ultimate triumph in Qatar.

“Why not? That is 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. Talking about pressure – I don’t feel no pressure. We have a great team. Of course we have to take it in a very serious way and not just think: ‘We are Belgium and we’re going to make it anyway,’ but I am quite confident.”

De Bruyne is a major reason for Onana’s optimism. The younger midfielder venerates his senior teammate, and to whoever is in his company. “He is one of the best players in the world. That is my opinion,” Onana says. “For me, and I have been saying this is the locker room at Everton, he does things that no one else can do. I would give him the Ballon d’Or. If it depended on me I would give it to him. He is a crazy player and I enjoy having the chance to share the pitch with him.”

The Manchester City playmaker is 31 and has indicated this could be his last chance to win a World Cup. That is certainly true of Vertonghen and Alderweireld, while Courtois and Lukaku, who will be 34 and 33 respectively by the time the 2026 tournament kicks off, may also view Qatar as a final farewell in their prime. Onana believes the golden age could last until the United States, Canada and Mexico in four years’ time, however. “You will have to ask them if it is their last World Cup,” he says. “But I would be pleased to keep playing with them because they are great, great players. And they are great professionals.”

Onana admits it will be the realisation of “a dream to play in a World Cup” and the completion of a plan that involved moving to the Premier League, establishing himself in the Everton team and winning selection for Martínez’s squad. There is a possibility he could come up against his Everton colleague Jordan Pickford, and England’s No 1, in the final. “I’ll score against him” he laughs. “I’m joking, but why not?”