Giles, a Belgium fan wandering around the picturesque Kremlin in Kazan, had somewhere to be. “My graduation starts in 20 minutes,” he joked ahead of the Red Devils’ clash with Brazil, glancing at his watch. The only problem: he was over 3,000 kilometres away from his university. “You have to have your priorities right,” he laughed.
His faith was rewarded.
On a serene summer evening in Tatarstan, Belgium put Brazil to the sword. Manager Roberto Martínez went straight to plan B – starting Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli after they saved his side against Japan – and his revised system worked. “I gave the players a very difficult tactical plan,” the former Everton manager said following the match. “We had to be brave tactically and to do that in a World Cup, the players have to believe.”
Believe they did. Romelu Lukaku had the best 45 minutes of his career in the opening half. Fellaini – so often-criticised – was the fulcrum of a dominant midfield. Kevin De Bruyne, deployed as a false nine, led raid after raid on the counter, tearing a Casemiro-less Brazil to bits. Eden Hazard’s creative genius was on display all evening. Thibaut Courtois made several world class saves. It is no exaggeration to say that Belgium’s first-half was the best performance by any team of this thrilling World Cup so far.
This Belgium team has been feted as a “golden generation” for the best part of a decade. The ages of its constituent parts vary – from elder statesman Vincent Kompany at 32 to 21-year-old Youri Tielemans – such that, unlike other hailed generations, the current team did not progress through the ranks as a coherent whole. Nor has Belgium had much success in youth competitions of late – they have never made the final four of the U20 World Cup, while the team that finished third at the 2015 U17 World Cup is yet to graduate to the senior team.
But with so many talented players, many of whom ply their trade in the Premier League, success has been expected. To date, it hasn’t materialised.
Belgium’s semi-final encounter with France – on Tuesday in Saint Petersburg – hints at a fascinating match-up. France has its own golden generation, and like Belgium the chance to vindicate their potential has so far eluded them. Losing to a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal in the final of their home European Championships two years ago did little to improve the national sporting psyche.
Despite boasting on paper one of the strongest teams, France have been less exhilarating than their collection of stars might suggest. That hasn’t mattered yet – they have won four times and played out a meaningless final group stage clash draw with Denmark. Against Belgium, more of the same – compact, controlled football – is unlikely to be enough.
French manager Didier Deschamps can take some heart from Belgium’s rear-guard action in the second-half against Brazil. Following a Renato Augusto strike, the Seleção turned the tide as the clock ticked towards the final whistle. The Belgian structure dissolved and Martínez’s men – assured all evening – suddenly looked at sea. Last-ditch clearances replaced clinical counter-attacking movements. A repeat of that desperate scrambling in the semi-final could be ruinous. French ace Kylian Mbappe would relish the opportunity to slice apart that latter-day Belgium team.
After watching his team lose for the first time in over a year on Friday, Brazilian coach Tite was magnanimous.
“I don’t like to talk about luck,” the erudite manager mused. “It’s an educated manner of putting down people’s skills. They were skillful. They finished well. There was no luck.” That may be kind of Tite, but luck is an essential element of football. Belgium’s victory was equal parts skill and luck.
They may have been stellar against Brazil, but the Red Devils will need good fortune against France if they are to secure their first-ever appearance in a World Cup final. This golden generation has long promised. Now they have an opportunity to deliver. For Giles and his compatriots, it is a top priority.