Qualifying for major tournament finals for the first time in a decade is certainly a cause for celebration. It was clear Belgium’s players saw it as such at the final whistle in Croatia on Friday night, as they danced and sang in a raucous huddle in the rain and mud of the Stadion Maksimir pitch in Zagreb.
Belgium’s golden generation may have been feted for a while, but the manner of their qualification for the 2014 World Cup is some achievement, and one that we need to pause to recognise.
Marc Wilmots’ team sealed the deal with 25 points from a possible 27 in their opening nine qualifying matches, in a group containing an experienced Croatia and an unpredictable but talented Serbia—not to mention the potential banana skins laid by Wales and Scotland, with the latter managing to upset Croatia in Zagreb in June.
That Belgium have a squad so stuffed with talent has almost led to the cart being put before the horse, with talk already of them being a great bet for a quarter-final place or even more next summer.
This is clearly still a developing side. The XI that started in Zagreb contained only three players over 25, with Bayern Munich defender Daniel van Buyten the sole player to have reached 30. At times that was clear, as focus waned in the second half with a 2-0 lead gained—courtesy of Romelu Lukaku’s first-half brace—and the job seemingly done.
Yet this qualifying campaign has been testament to a growing maturity in the ranks. When a job has needed to be done, it has been. Belgium rode out difficult moments in the Cardiff qualifier with Wales and even a determined performance by Serbia in Belgrade before Kevin De Bruyne helped finish them off.
Compare this to the failed bid for a play-off place for Euro 2012. Crucial leads and points were squandered against rivals Turkey and Austria. Eden Hazard was suspended from the squad for three matches (reduced to one) by then-coach Georges Leekens having been photographed munching a burger outside the King Baudouin Stadium after being substituted against Turkey while the match was still going on, as per The Daily Mail.
Hazard has, of course, become a central figure since then, flourishing under Wilmots as much as he had floundered under Leekens, who seemed to have little idea of how to incorporate such a voluminous individual talent.
There is much to be said for the theory that Vincent Kompany’s emergence as a genuine leader has demolished previous factions in the dressing room, and the diverse origins of players like Mousa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini have also helped to trivialise traditional divisions between the Flemish and Walloons.
On the pitch, super-reliable midfield pivot Axel Witsel has been central, giving a side flushed with attacking verve and ambition stability and balance. That was proved against Croatia, when a side without Kompany and with Thomas Vermaelen only on the bench held out under late pressure.
The talent seems in little danger of drying up, with 17-year-old Zakaria Bakkali of PSV Eindhoven set to be given an opportunity in Tuesday’s final qualifying match against Wales, as per The Mail. Hazard’s younger brother Thorgan, currently starring at Zulte Waregem for a second successive season on loan from Chelsea and a member of Belgium’s under-21 squad, can’t be far behind. His teammates include Monaco winger Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Anderlecht’s excellent midfielder Dennis Praet and Lukaku’s own sibling, Jordan.
Those celebration scenes in Zagreb showed us what Hazard and Lukaku constantly do on their Instagram accounts in international week. Here is a group with infectious enthusiasm and energy who delight in each other’s company. Only time will tell if that can continue in the high pressure of a World Cup, but Brazil should only be the start for this effervescent group.