More than a week to go before Belgium’s World Cup campaign begins, but the flags are already hanging from the windows on a small row of terraced houses outside the national football centre in Tubize, around 15 miles from the heart of Brussels.
Inside the base, the breeze is warm and the mood is relaxed as the most hyped generation in Belgian history amble onto the training pitch. Thierry Henry, the assistant manager, is in jovial spirits as he joins in with an early session of keepy-uppy, while Chelsea striker Michy Batshuayi plays the jester by scarpering off with one of the balls.
The following night, on Monday, Belgium take on Costa Rica in their final friendly before Russia, and it is Romelu Lukaku’s turn to have some fun. First, he sticks his fingers above the head of a touchline TV reporter, giving him ‘bunny ears’ during a live broadcast, and then he obliterates Costa Rica’s defence, scoring twice as Belgium cruise to an impressive 4-1 victory.
The players are enjoying themselves, it seems, and so are the supporters. “For the fans it’s unbelievable how we play,” Toby Alderweireld says afterwards. “We’ll build on this.”
There is an air of calmness and confidence around Belgium, but it has not always been this way. And, it should be added, it may not be like this again. A week earlier, they had been whistled off the pitch after drawing 0-0 with Portugal. And a week later, on Monday, they take on Panama knowing that anything but a commanding victory in their first World Cup game will dramatically increase the pressure on this ‘golden generation’.
Much like it did with England in the 2000s, that tag has weighed heavily at times. Belgium failed to qualify for Euro 2012, and were beaten in the quarter-finals at both the 2014 World Cup (by Argentina) and the 2016 European Championships (by Wales). Expectations have not been met, and time is beginning to run out for this group to fulfil its obvious potential.
Of their likely starting line-up against Panama, only two players, Lukaku and Yannick Carrasco, will be under the age of 30 at the next World Cup. Throughout Roberto Martinez’s team, from Jan Vertonghen in defence to Eden Hazard in attack, there are players who are currently operating at the peak of their powers.
“I think we know that it’s now or never,” says Nacer Chadli, the West Bromwich Albion forward who plays as a wing-back for his country. “We need to take it seriously.”
There is a different sense of purpose within the squad now, and Chadli believes this summer’s World Cup will be the peak of this side’s collective ability. “We are more mature and more secure than two years ago, so I think we are more confident” he says. “[At Euro 2016] there was always a bit of a feeling that we missed a bit of experience and a few things in the team.”
They did not miss a trick in qualifying for Russia, when they won nine of their 10 games and scored a record-equalling 43 goals. In Lukaku, Belgium’s all-time leading goalscorer, they have a striker who has notched 13 goals in his last nine international games. Behind him, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Kevin De Bruyne are three of the finest creative players in Europe.
England, Belgium’s third opponents in the group, will be wary. Not least because an early, and unfavourable, comparison between the two has been provided by Costa Rica, who played both sides in the space of four days this month.
England, admittedly, did not play a full-strength team in their 2-0 victory at Elland Road, but the way Belgium annihilated the Costa Rican defence will be a source of concern for Gareth Southgate. “Belgium are more powerful, with Mertens and Hazard, and their attacks seemed more organised than England’s,” Oscar Ramirez, the Costa Rica manager, told the Daily Telegraph.
But this is not to say that all has run smoothly for Belgium in the build-up to Russia, or that Martinez is trusted to mould these talents into a successful team. There has been unrest over the former Everton’s manager preferred 3-4-3 system, for example, and it took until the victory over Costa Rica for him to record his first win against a side inside the top 40 of Fifa’s rankings.
Martinez has recently been attacked for not including the popular Radja Nainggolan in his World Cup squad, and in November he was criticised by his own player, De Bruyne, who said after a friendly with Mexico that Belgium were tactically outclassed.
De Bruyne’s influence is inevitably critical to Belgium’s hopes. With Martinez opting for a two-man midfield, the Manchester City midfielder must be more disciplined, in a deeper-lying role, than he is under Pep Guardiola.
The responsibility is on the 26-year-old to provide service for Hazard and Mertens further forward, and it was notable in their pre-tournament friendlies that De Bruyne receiving possession was the trigger for the forwards to hurtle downfield. During breaks of play against Costa Rica, it was De Bruyne who spoke with Martinez on the touchline, De Bruyne who gestured tactical instructions to his team-mates.
“Obviously it is one of the biggest chances we have had,” the midfielder says of Belgium’s summer ambitions. “But there are 10 or 15 teams who can win it. Even other teams are probably more stacked [with talent] than us. In a tournament you need everything: you need to be physically and mentally ready, you need luck. Everybody is used to pressure. Everybody plays for big clubs, everybody wants to win titles. Club or country, it does not change.”
The system may not get the best out of De Bruyne, but it certainly helps Hazard, the captain, who has the freedom to roam intro central areas. He was “majestic” against Costa Rica, Martinez said, and the Chelsea forward appears to be thriving on the responsibility he has been given. “We try to use him in an area where he can turn, and link up in a different way,” Martinez said. “He looks sharp, he looks strong and he looks fit to ride any challenges.”
The same cannot be said for another leader of this group. Vincent Kompany, the central defender in the back three, is again battling his body in an attempt to be fit in time. Martinez has insisted he will not make a decision on whether to keep Kompany, who is recovering from a groin strain, in the squad until 24 hours before the Panama match, but his return may be crucial later in the tournament.
Without Kompany, Martinez has stuck with his 3-4-3 formation, using Laurent Ciman and Dedryck Boyata in the back three against Egypt and Costa Rica respectively. Neither defender is even close to Kompany’s standard, and there are those in Belgium who think a four-man defence may be more suitable.
These may feel like relatively minor quibbles for a squad packed with a ludicrous amount of ability, but they should not be dismissed. Martinez knows that tournament football is a game of fine margins, and Belgium know that even the smallest hiccup could ruin their best ever chance of winning a World Cup.