Why Belgium will never get a better shot at glory

It’s hard to believe that as recently as 1992, there were only eight teams in the entire Euros. At the completion of the group stage of these EURO 2016 championships, we’ve got double that number still in the competition. No kidding.


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We talk frightfully about why mistakes at this level are so dramatic and concerning, about why one slip up can end a nation’s dream. 

Well, with only eight teams going home after the group stage, that’s not exactly true.

Just about everyone has been allowed to fluff their lines - and still get a second go. 

Belgium are the the best example of this. Going into this tournament, expectation was sky high about their prospects - fielding a first team that could almost double as the English Premier League’s all-star XI. 

But a defeat in their opening match against Italy seemed to take all the wind out of their sails. Indeed, the critics, who suspect Belgium are no more than a bunch of talented individuals with no collective ethic, couldn’t bang their drums loudly enough. 

Now they have landed with the best draw imaginable, the one they’ve dreamed of as soon as this Golden Generation came together.

It is their shot at glory. No excuses, no maybes. It’s now or never. 

Superb as Hungary have been in the group stages, and we shouldn’t overlook the thrill of their play or the feverish dedication of their players, it’s a fantastic match-up for Belgium in the round of 16.

After that, provided they win in Toulouse, they await the winner of Wales and Northern Ireland clash.

In fact, if you were to split this draw in quarters, there can be no doubt that Belgium have been given the softest draw possible. 

Maybe that loss to Italy was the wake-up call Marc Wilmots’s side needed.
Maybe it was the wake-up Wilmots himself required, having endured plenty of criticism about the way he coaches this side.

He was given a tactical bath by Antonio Conte, a grand master by comparison. 

The extent of Wilmots’s coaching CV is an interim stint at Schalke, a year at Belgium side Sint-Truiden and a national team assistant posting.

Exactly how he ended up in charge of the Red Devils, an excellent playing career aside, at what should be their most highest ebb, is unfathomable. 

Still, he’s in charge, and that won’t change before these Euros are out.

And regardless of his managerial nous, his team is so good they should almost be able to coach themselves.

And Belgium's response in their final two group stages has proved exactly that. This team is capable of playing some stunning football. 

Watching their first half against Ireland, it became abundantly clear that confidence in attack was an issue. They dominated the Irish but couldn’t put them away. 

However, they came out in the second-half like a team possessed. It was though they realised their reputation as underachievers could stick forever if they didn’t get the job done. 

It all began to click. Romelu Lukaku scored. Then Axel Witsel got on the end of the tournament’s best passing move, one that even had the Irish fans applauding.

To finish it all off, Lukaku grabbed another, and got his own tournament moving at last. 

This was the performance the world had been waiting for.

Eden Hazard finally warming to life, Kevin De Bruyne seemingly unstoppable on the right. The defence not conceding ground and the midfield doing what we all know they can. 

It took them time to dismantle Sweden in the final match but they did so successfully, Radja Nainggolan’s deflected goal no less than the team deserved.

UEFA’s complex and unwieldy fixturing did the rest. 

All that has meant their time has come. Right here, right now. Don’t mess it up, Marc.

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4 min read
Published 25 June 2016 at 9:21am
By Sebastian Hassett