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World Cup 2022 in Qatar: Belgium face up to the end of an era after latest disappointment – The Warm-Up


MONDAY’S BIG STORIES

All That Glitters

The first thing to note is that, despite the ill-feeling around the team, Belgium are still in with a decent chance of making the second round. Sure, nothing about their performances so far suggests that they’re a side destined to beat Croatia, but this is now officially a World Cup of upsets. Perhaps Belgium have been bad enough that they’ve become underdogs.

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But taken along with their rickety performance and lucky win against Canada, yesterday’s loss to Morocco felt like an ending of sorts. Romelu Lukaku limited to a cameo. Kevin Du Bruyne being proven right. Thibaut Courtois vanishing at crucial moments. And Eden Hazard, sadly peripheral, a slow-jogging incarnation of the old joke about customers complaining in a restaurant. This food is terrible – and such small portions.

One problem with all conversations about golden generations is that nobody ever quite defines the criteria for success. If this does mark an ending of sorts, then Belgium’s golden generation will have managed third place at the World Cup in 2018, along with a quarter-final in 2014; two quarter-finals in Euros 2016 and 2020; fourth place in the 2021 Nations League; and of course, all this time spent at the top of FIFA’s rankings. You don’t get a medal for that. You don’t get medals for any of that.

If the criteria is a trophy of some kind, then the players and their coaches, first Marc Wilmots and then Roberto Martinez, have failed. And it’s easy to wonder why the Belgian FA decided to hand their treasure over to first Wilmots, a Belgian legend as a player but no great shakes as a coach, and then Martinez, who arrived with the promise of entertainment just as international football became all about defensive shape. At the time it looked a great decision for the interested neutral, looking for goals at both ends and general chaos, and that really should have been a red flag for Belgium’s administrators.

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But international football is brutally difficult, a game of tiny margins and, perhaps above all else, timing. As an example: nobody talks about this cycle of France players as a golden generation, because the French generally have a pretty consistent production line of talent, but they have gone from decent to excellent at just the wrong moment for their smaller and more waffle-oriented neighbours. One oddity of Belgium’s tournaments is that in both the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, they were knocked out by the eventual winners.

You don’t get a trophy for that either, but perhaps it points to a less grandiose measure of what we should expect from a golden generation. Over the last few tournaments, on paper and at times on the pitch, Belgium have looked like a side capable of winning things. Not perfect; not even favourites. But definite contenders. That they subsequently failed to do so is just the way football goes. A golden generation gets you into the argument; it doesn’t guarantee winning it.

Perhaps another coach could have shaped them into something more streetwise, less brittle; perhaps they never quite had the depth of talent to exchange blows with the likes of France or Italy. But the paradox of disappointment is that it requires a certain quality in the first place. And the thing about gold is that it’s very pretty to look at, but also quite soft, as metals go. What you really want is a gold-plated generation, with some protean-base metal hiding underneath and stopping things from getting too squidgy.

DOHA, QATAR – NOVEMBER 27: Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium reacts during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Belgium and Morocco at Al Thumama Stadium on November 27, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Image credit: Eurosport

Striking Difference

There’s no arguing with the science. Alvaro Morata, off the bench to score. Niclas Fullkrug, off the bench to score. You can start without a striker. Perhaps you can even win without a striker. But when things get tight, when the situation gets desperate, then every single manager smashes the same emergency button. Send for the big man.

The arrival of Fullkrug to the party is particularly exciting. He is everything a World Cup surprise package should be: an outsider for the squad, a late bloomer in international terms, a stylistic throwback. The perfect calibration of awkwardness and narrative that you need at a major tournament.

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And speaking of narrative. On the face of it, a draw isn’t a terrible result for either team. Costa Rica’s win over Japan means that Germany, while still bottom of the group, will jump up to second if they beat Costa Rica and Spain beat Japan. Obviously, we’re not going to predict those results with any degree of confidence – this World Cup is already very silly – but that’s basically what you’d expect to happen. So the path to German redemption is clear.

And Spain could have closed it off. We can assume that they were trying to win, and so this isn’t a criticism of their efforts. But in the final reckoning, they have passed up an opportunity to eliminate a major contender at a very early stage. Group winners and group runners-up are divided off into different halves of the bracket, meaning that if Germany do go through, they could meet again in the final.

A long way to go, of course. A lot of France and Brazil and England in the way. But we’ve read our Roy of the Rovers. We’ve seen our Disney. The unlikely hero emerges; the missed opportunity comes back to haunt. We’re not predicting that Germany will beat Spain in the final, with Fullkrug scoring the winner. But if we close our eyes, we can see it – meaty header, messy celebration, Spaniards lying all over the turf – and that means that the football gods can see it too. And as noted, this is already a very silly World Cup.

Welcome To Miami

Today’s Not The World Cup news comes from Lionel Messi, who is reportedly considering swapping his life in Paris for a new challenge in Miami. Sure, the Louvre is nice and all, but do you know what they have out there? They have Phil Neville.

The prospect of history’s greatest footballer being managed by Manchester United’s former odd-job man is a delicious one. And apparently they’re going to get Luis Suarez and Cesc Fabregas along, just to keep Messi cheerful? Sure, why not. Why not Sergio Busquets as well? Oh, they already thought of that. David Beckham wants to build the slowest team in football history, and we can respect the vision. The Expendables, but with sad-faced men that once played for Barcelona.

If nothing else, it will kick the arguments about whether or not MLS is a retirement league for ageing greats into a higher gear. Look at how exclusive this retirement home is getting! Look at the quality of the residents! Gonzalo Higuain famously admitted that he’d expected to be able to play in the USA with a cigarette in his mouth, only to find out that he would actually be required to run around a bit.

Nevertheless, there is something strange about the whole idea. Obviously, Messi can do what he wants, and it’s not like anything that he does on the pitch now is going to diminish what has come before. The many highs are unimpeachable. But this project comes with a vague air of unreality. It’s as if somebody poured a litre of Sunny Delight into Football Manager, and we’re slowly sliding into a future generated by algorithm and sugar rush. Which, to be fair, does sound kind of fun. Until Cristiano Ronaldo moves to the west coast and we have to do another round of football’s longest and most pointless argument.

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RETRO CORNER

Since we’re talking about Germany strikers with moderate domestic records but heroic appearances at the World Cup, we should probably revisit Miroslav Klose and his 16 World Cup goals. Average distance: about three feet.

Fullkrug is probably starting a little late to ever catch Klose. But Kylian Mbappe currently has seven World Cup goals from two and a bit tournaments, which means all being well he should pass Klose in either 2026 or 2030. That compilation will look a little more spectacular, but there’s something charming about Klose’s dedication to the art of proper goal-poaching. They all count the same.

HAT TIP

A World Cup produces a whole lot of content, and a lot of that comes from former footballers. Some of it is, to be polite, a little unnecessary. But we’ve been enjoying Juninho Pernambucano’s bits for the Guardian, and here he is looking at how Brazil coped with Serbia and how they will get on without the injured Neymar.

“He is, undoubtedly, the star of the team and one of the best players in the world, but without him Tite has the option to add another midfielder, such as Fred or possibly Bruno Guimaraes, to play in a classic 4-3-3 to free up Paqueta, or keep the same tactical structure to introduce Rodrygo into the team.”

He is also complimentary of Richarlison, who was “isolated among the giant defenders but did not give up and dedicated himself to his work. He kept on being visible and showed the mental strength of someone who has gone through hardships to get where he is. He never stops running and, as a sign of his character and human values, he is a striker who never stops fighting.”

He does not speculate as to whether Brazil will have a total systemic collapse and concede seven, which is probably for the best.

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COMING UP

Cameroon vs. Serbia, South Korea vs. Ghana, Brazil vs. Switzerland and Portugal vs. Uruguay.

And the Warm-Up will be back tomorrow to tell you just how Brazil get on.

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