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‘Golden generation’ may not be a curse for Belgium

Oct 13, 2012, 8:16 PM EDT

Serbia Belgium WCup Soccer AP

Golden generation should be a complimentary term. After all, it has the word “gold” in it. We only resuscitate our lust of precious metals when we’re trying to adorn something, by it our wrists, our loved ones, or in this case, a yet-to-win-anything soccer team. That’s why the label gets recycled and reused on any group of talented players who emerge together into a senior national team. Their sudden infusion for vitality should push a nation’s soccer to a new heights. Nobody remembers that most successful golden generations are ones that have had the label retroactively applied.

Of late, the moniker’s been a kiss of death, most notably to the Luis Figo-led Portugal sides of the mid-to-late 1990s. There’s received its most alarming wakeup call at the hands of the United States, a then-little accomplished soccer nation who managed to upset the next big thing at World Cup 2002. As Jonathan Wilson points out in today’s column at ESPN Star, Romania, England and Ivory Coast have also fallen victim to the same pressures that befell Portugal, expectations “that can make failure self-perpetuating.”

Wilson’s piece, however, is about a golden generation which may actually be coming good. Yesterday in Belgrade, Belgium scored a surprisingly lopsided 3-0 victory over Serbia in UEFA World Cup Qualifying. The three points pushed them to seven through three rounds, leaving the Red Devils tied on points with Croatia on top of Group A.

The result is a far cry from the depths Belgium has sunk to last year. Then the Belgians were completing a disappointing Euro 2012 qualifying cycle. Their failure to compete with Germany and Turkey bred doubts. Could the talent could be brought together? Their wealth of skill players across midfield seemed redundant. They lacked goal scoring, and the coach was having trouble devising a system that could get the most out of his best player.

With George Leekens gone, there is new hope Eden Hazard can be as dominant in the international game as he’s been for Lille and Chelsea. While he’s still 21 years old, Hazard has only two goals in 32 international appearances, form that (coupled with questions about his commitment) often left him out of Leekens’ starting XIs. After Leekens was replaced by Marc Wilmots in May, the new Belgium boss sought to “create a special role for Eden”.

Early returns have been discouraging. Hazard scored has second international goal in Wilmots’ debut, though he’s since failed to reappear on the scoresheet. In Belgrade, he was taken off early in the second half, a move Wilmots said “injected fresh blood into the team.” If Belgium is going to make a leap out of the Leekens-era, they may need to do so without the leadership of their best player.

The rest of Belgium’s Golden Generation will have to pick up the slack, one of the many reasons the Belgrade result was so encouraging. Christian Benteke, 21, opened the scoring the Serbia. His second international goal hints the Aston Villa-man can be the scorer the Devils so desperately need.. Fellow 21-year-old Kevin De Bruyne doubled their league, with relative veteran Kevin Mirallas, 25, scoring in second half stoppage time.

Although Hazard, Benteke, De Bruyne and 20-year-old goalkeeper Thibault Courtois are among the squad’s more notable players, they’re merely augmenting what is Belgium’s true golden generation. Of the 24 players Wilmots called in this break, 17 are between the ages of 23 and 26, a group that includes Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Whitsel, Moussa Dembele, and Steven Defour.

That’s the core of the team, a core that disappointed when they failed to qualify them for Poland-Ukraine. Now, with the 21-year-olds assuming starting roles on the team, there’s reason to think Belgium can improve. With that enviable collection of talent, expectations remain high, even if cynicism has grown. In a group with Serbia and Croatia, Belgium should still be expected to claim one of the top two spots, even if 2012’s qualifying tells us to be prepared for anything.

Those doubts – that cynicism – is why yesterday’s result is so big for the Belgians. They went on the road, beat a team that qualified for the 2012 World Cup, and got three goals. The won in a way that will force critics (and perhaps, themselves) to reassess their doubts. Christian Benteke may fill their greatest need, and with Hazard still struggling to be the threat he is at club level, there’s reason to think Belgium can improve still.

If there’s cause for caution, it’s less likely to be found in the Belgians’ talents than in the history of golden generations. As Brian Phillips dives into when speaking of England’s, there is a point in a golden generation’s ascendance where potential could possibly give way to actual, historic results. Then attention happens. Then celebrity happens. In the case of England, the stars of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Cole may have heighted the golden generation curse. For other groups that don’t have to navigate the insatiable world of London tabloid drama, the professional distractions of success can take a toll. Players like Hazard, Kompany, and Vermaelen play for clubs who will place significant demands on their players.

Although a golden generation does provide a huge, simultaneous talent infusion, it also risks players going through the downs of their maturation processes at the same time. Most will sign professional contracts around the same time. Their first breakthroughs for club and country will fall in line, and as they spend their early-20s coming into their own, most will make their first big club move around the same time. Eight players from Beglium’s squad have changed teams within the last four months. Eight players have taken on similar distractions and risks.

Friday’s win provides a focal point – a way to see through the expectations, past failures, and distractions to a glimpse of what the Red Devils can become. After a 1-1 home draw against Croatia in the previous qualifier, the result gives Belgium reason to believe they’re still moving forward. They can still be golden.

“This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come,” Wilcots told FIFA.com. “[T]hey’re still young and can improve a lot. The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Benteke are only 20 years old and are not yet established regulars for their clubs. We have to be realistic and give them time.”

“We’ve managed to build a group of 25 players who are moving forward, but it’s going to be tough all the way to the end [of the qualifying competition] … we must stay humble and realise that it will all be decided in matches nine and ten. If we go through the play-offs, our experience as a team will be much better and so, too, will our chances of reaching Brazil.”

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