Belgium are the major casualties of the World Cup’s group stage after an ageing team was dumped out in the first round.
It appears the end of a cycle for Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ side, a term often handed to nations who produce an outstanding collection of talent of similar age. Expectations were that this group could end Belgium’s wait for a major trophy, but their time seems to have passed without tournament success.
The Red Devils are not the first ‘Golden Generation’ who have failed to live up to expectations and following their exit in Qatar, we look at five nations whose Golden Generations never won a trophy.
Hungary were the dominant side in international football during the 1950s, with the nation’s Mighty Magyars often referenced as one of the great national teams.
Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis were leading lights of a team that thrashed established superpowers at their peak, including a 6-3 win over England at Wembley in 1953 that became known as the ‘Match of the Century’. Nándor Hidegkuti hit a hat-trick in that win as Hungary ran riot in London, in a performance which sent shockwaves through English football.
One year later, Hungary hosted England in a rematch and inflicted a heaviest ever defeat on the Three Lions, winning 7-1 in Budapest.
Hungary had won gold at the 1952 Olympics and between 1950 and 1956 suffered just one defeat in 50 matches across all competitions. That defeat came in the 1954 World Cup final, as Hungary were beaten 3-2 by West Germany.
On this day, in 1954, England were taught a lesson by the Mighty Magyars – the greatest Hungary team of all time.
Gusztáv Sebes' Golden Team won 7-1 in the biggest defeat in England's history. 🇭🇺🏴 pic.twitter.com/xnSve9Hzbr
— Football Tweet ⚽ (@Football__Tweet) May 23, 2021
The game came to be known as the ‘Miracle of Bern’, as the Germans came from two goals down to be crowned world champions. Hungary had swatted aside each of their opponents on route to the final, including an 8-3 thrashing of their final opponents in the group stage that saw Kocsis score four times.
Despite the absence of World Cup success, Hungary’s Golden Team remains one of the finest the game has seen. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution caused the premature breakup of an iconic side.
The Netherlands (1970s)
Total Football was the talk of world football during the 1970s, as the Netherlands introduced the game to their free-flowing brand of football.
Rinus Michels was the brain behind the revolution, with the Dutch dazzling on the world stage. Michels’ side was built around the talent of Johan Cruyff, the finest footballer of his era and winner of three Ballon d’Or accolades in four years between 1971 and 1974.
2 – Netherlands lost in the final, having also been defeated by West Germany in 1974 at this stage. They were the first side to lose the final in back-to-back tournaments. Hurdle. #OptaWCYears pic.twitter.com/toi9oDQAy1
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) May 4, 2020
The Netherlands’ Golden Generation included stars such as Johan Neskeens, Rob Rensenbrink and Ruud Krol, with the core of the side coming from the Feyenoord and Ajax teams who won four consecutive European Cups between them in the early 1970s.
The Dutch came agonisingly close to the ultimate prize but twice fell short at the final stage, surrendering an early lead to lose to West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final. Four years later the Netherlands reached another World Cup final, but lost 3-1 to host nation Argentina in extra-time in Buenos Aires.
Optimism was high in Portugal following the emergence of an exciting collection of talent in the early nineties, with the nation winning consecutive u-20 World Cups in 1989 and 1991.
As the nineties ended and the turn of the millennium arrived, Portugal’s team had matured into one capable of challenging for major trophies. Luis Figo became the first Portuguese player since Eusebio to win the Ballon d’Or in 2000, after the national team reached the semi-final of that summer’s European Championship.
Figo was the headline act in a team packed full of talent, with the likes of Rui Costa and Vítor Baía adding to a formidable spine. After a dismal World Cup campaign in 2002, Portugal hosted the 2004 European Championship and their initial Golden Generation had been added to with a new wave of talent.
The likes of Deco and Ricardo Carvalho had impressed as Porto won the Champions League, while a teenage superstar in Cristiano Ronaldo was fast emerging. Portugal reached the final on home soil, but were stunned in the showpiece as underdogs Greece caused a seismic shock. A semi-final exit at the 2006 World Cup brought an end to their time as challengers for the top trophies.
The failures of England’s Golden Generation have been discussed and debated across the past decade, a team compromised of several stars with genuine claims as the best in the world in their respective positions, but who never came close to tournament success.
Of the team that started the quarter-final defeat to Portugal at Euro 2004, eight of those would end their careers with Champions League winners’ medals. Of those that didn’t, Michael Owen won the Ballon d’Or in 2001 and Sol Campbell completed an entire Premier League season without defeat at Arsenal.
Under the management of Sven-Göran Eriksson, England’s talented crop suffered quarter-final exits at three straight major tournaments, the latter two of those coming on penalties to the Portuguese.
Golden generations don't always work out how they're meant to 💔 pic.twitter.com/pkNBph48gr
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 2, 2022
Club cliques, negative rigid tactics and an attempt to shoe-horn star names into an unbalanced side all contributed to England’s failures.
On the club splits in the England camp, Rio Ferdinand told BT Sport: “It was down to the obsession with winning. I didn’t want to see Frank (Lampard) have an edge on me. I didn’t want to speak to him about anything he’d be able to take away to facilitate his team winning.
“When I was with England with Stevie (Gerrard), when we were battling for the Premier League, I didn’t want to sit around him and be around him because I just didn’t want to hear about what Liverpool were doing.”
Belgium’s meek exit from the 2022 World Cup appears to be the end of the nation’s Golden Generation, with an ageing team struggling to replicate past successes in Qatar.
Roberto Martinez’s side finished third in Russia four years ago, in the tournament that perhaps represents the nation’s missed chance. After beating Brazil in the quarter-final, the Red Devils were eliminated after a narrow semi-final exit to eventual champions France.
Since then, the core of their generation have reached the wrong side of 30, with star names such as Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku having suffered a decline in fortunes at club level.
Is this the end for Belgium's golden generation? 💔 pic.twitter.com/pKAJd2mgN0
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) December 1, 2022
Martinez spent six years in charge, a period which saw the Belgium squad contain world-class talents in Kevin De Bruyne, Hazard and Thibaut Courtois. Their failure to reach a major final has been an underperformance, having been ranked as the world’s number one nation for three-and-a-half years between September 2018 and March 2022.
Their campaign in Qatar was poor, edging past minnows Canada before defeat to Morocco and a goalless draw with Croatia. The latter result – in which Belgium fielded the oldest starting XI at a World Cup since 2010 – confirmed their early exit.
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