Belgium’s golden generation is over, and that’s a good thing

DÜSSELDORF, Germany — “Stupid.” That was the reaction of Belgium‘s star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne as he shuffled away from his postmatch interviews after his side’s 1-0 defeat to France in the Round of 16 at Euro 2024 on Monday.

The 33-year-old was reacting to the suggestion that this golden generation of Belgium players came up short by not reaching the final of a major tournament. They came close, making the semifinal of the 2018 World Cup (where they again lost 1-0 to France), but that was as near as they got. Since then, there has been disappointment after disappointment. A quarterfinal exit followed at Euro 2020 (which was played in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and then a surprise group-stage elimination at 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

De Bruyne does not reject the idea that this Belgian side, at times, may have underdelivered compared to the talent they have possessed over the last decade. His annoyance stems from the fact there are other nations with equally as talented players.

“And you say that France, England, Spain and Germany don’t have golden generations?” he quipped back. “OK. Thank you. Stupid …”

With that, De Bruyne bid farewell to Euro 2024. It remains to be seen if the Manchester City midfielder was also saying goodbye to his international career.

“It’s too early to answer,” De Bruyne told reporters when asked if he would continue to play for Belgium. “Let me process this loss. It’s a been a very long season, I need to rest my body. I will make my decision after the summer.”

Belgium coach Domenico Tedesco made it clear he would like De Bruyne to continue with the Red Devils. He will be 35 by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around in the United States, Mexico and Canada, which, compared to Croatia’s 38-year-old Luka Modric and Portugal’s 41-year-old Pepê at these Euros, could still be considered relatively young.

There are others remaining in the Belgium squad from what is considered one of the most talented generations ever. Striker Romelu Lukaku, 31, continues to lead the line, while Jan Vertonghen, 37, continues at the back, although the former Tottenham defender may now feel it is time to step aside.

In general, though, the side which beat Brazil and then lost narrowly to eventual world champions France in 2018 has gradually disintegrated. Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, two of the stars of that side, have both retired from football; others have either aged or lost form in the six years since. De Bruyne, Vertonghen and Lukaku are the only players who started both of the aforementioned France games, although winger Yannick Carrasco also featured in both matches from off the bench.

The feeling is that the 2018 World Cup was their chance; though Euro 2016, when they lost to Wales in the quarterfinal, also slipped them by.

“To be fair I think we had a better chance to win four years go,” former Chelsea and Real Madrid winger Hazard said in 2022. “The team was better four years ago. We have a few guys, they are a bit older now, but we have experience and the best goalkeeper in the world in Thibaut Courtois.”

Courtois’ absence is one of the issues which has loomed over Belgium while in Germany. The Real Madrid goalkeeper returned from injury at the end of the season to feature in the Champions League final, but was not called up for the tournament due to a strained relationship with Tedesco. Koen Casteels, who plays for Saudi Arabian club Al Qadsiah, took his place in goal.

“I think Casteels did brilliant,” Tedesco said when asked if Courtois’ presence would have made a difference in the France loss. “He was really fantastic. He saved us in the game against Ukraine so we could play this game against France.

“He was brilliant in the buildup, took good decisions to switch sides or whatever. He did fantastic. I can’t answer about other circumstances, but the [France] goal I don’t think is the problem of Casteels.”

With or without Courtois, Belgium are now building for a future without the same talent but with a base the previous generation has constructed and with less expectations and pressure than in recent tournaments.

Until their run to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinal, they had not appeared in a major tournament for 12 years. This is the point De Bruyne was attempting to make. Belgium is a country with football pedigree, but should they be expected to beat bigger countries like Spain, Germany and France?

Against France on Monday, they set up knowing that they would likely be second best. Tedesco opted to sit back, looking to Carrasco, Lukaku, Loic Openda and Jérémy Doku to get in behind France when they had the chance to go long or counter.

“We thought there would be space behind the France backline,” he explained.

It almost worked. Lukaku and De Bruyne both had chances, saved by France goalkeeper Mike Maignan, and there was an element of luck to France’s late winner as Vertonghen deflected Randal Kolo Muani‘s goal into his own net in the 85th minute.

“We had a plan and we executed that plan pretty well,” De Bruyne said. “We knew that with their qualities they would have more of the ball, but I think we defended well as a team and didn’t concede many chances apart from a few long shots.

“We had our moments, although there weren’t very many. But we could be dangerous. Our plan was good until their goal came, with the deflection. It’s unfortunate, but we have to accept it.”

Pain followed the loss to Wales in 2016 and disappointment the defeat to France in 2018, but there was pride in Düsseldorf. After unexpectedly losing to Slovakia in their Euro 2024 opener, progressing to the knockout stages after beating Romania and drawing with Ukraine, there was little pressure going into the France game. That could be felt among the thousands of Belgium fans in Düsseldorf, most signing De Bruyne’s name, who stayed until long after the final whistle applauding the effort of the players.

De Bruyne had been deployed in a deeper role, alongside Everton‘s Amadou Onana at the base of the midfield, and that could be his position if he continues to play for Belgium. He may not have Hazard ahead of him, but Belgium still have quality players he can play make for. The fact Arsenal‘s Leandro Trossard didn’t even make it off the bench against France illustrates their depth. There are myriad examples of teams in international football who, through being well coached, having a good balance and a sprinkling of talent, have outperformed better sides — take Georgia this summer, Morocco at the last World Cup or Greece and Denmark winning the Euros in 2004 and 1992 respectively.

Tedesco’s job is to shape the next generation. The Italian-German, who at 38 is the second-youngest coach at the tournament after Germany’s Julian Nagelsman, was appointed at the beginning of 2023 and had not tasted defeat in 14 games prior to the finals, breezing through a tough qualification group which included Austria annd Sweden. That changed against Slovakia in the opener and then France dished out a harsh lesson in the perils of knockout football.

“I think we were brave enough,” he said of Belgium’s campaign. “Against France the chances were there. If you think that Lukaku will go home with zero goals after the games we have had, for me that is a pity and it’s unbelievable because he did well. But it’s really difficult to analyse for me so soon after the game. We will draw conclusions in a different atmosphere, analysing the games and the Euros and we will see in a few weeks.”

De Bruyne may need a little longer. But he has experienced so much with Belgium since making his international debut in 2010, helping them return to major tournaments regularly and winning over 100 caps, that it’s hard to imagine he won’t be tempted by one more World Cup at least. With the “stupid” golden generation tag slowly being removed, he may even enjoy having a little less pressure.