Belgium and De Bruyne have blown it. 'Golden Generation'? Maybe once upon a time

Kylian Mbappe was the first to go over to Kevin De Bruyne. They clasped hands. They hugged, exchanged a few words of mutual respect and then they broke off. Mbappe headed away to join the French victory scrum while De Bruyne – orange boots, red shirt, pink cheeks – started making his way to the other end of the pitch.

At least this time there was a show of appreciation from the Belgium supporters rather than the whistles and mutiny that persuaded the team’s captain to abandon his post-match walk in their final Euro 2024 group game against Ukraine.

“It was not fun to witness,” De Bruyne said in an interview with Het Laatste Niews, published on Monday. “I saw things that I have a hard time with. I can live with boos. But there is a difference between criticising and gesticulating.”

He is right, of course, and when you are a player with his portfolio of achievement, including more than 100 international caps, you have every right to make that point. What happened in Stuttgart was both sustained and startling – and undoubtedly went too far.

And yet, who can blame Belgium’s supporters if they feel weary of being seen as a nation that produces some of the world’s outstanding footballers without it manifesting itself in anything of real substance for the national team?

They have already lost Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and several others from the “Golden Generation” that peaked in 2015 by moving to the summit of FIFA’s world rankings. And no trophy has ever been given out for clambering to the top of a list that really matters little in the overall scheme of things.

Belgium’s highest point as a football nation was reaching the World Cup semi-final under Roberto Martinez’s management in 2018. Again, though, there is no real glory to be had from finishing third, especially when your team is packed with so many A-listers.

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Belgium celebrate winning in the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup, where they finished third (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

It feels, put bluntly, like Belgium have blown it. The Golden Generation? Maybe once. Closer analysis of the current team would suggest it might, in fact, have been iron pyrite.

If that sounds a bit too harsh, perhaps it is because they put in such a bland performance to go down against a France side whose own display in Dusseldorf seldom merited a mark higher than six out of ten.

Belgium had already lost to Slovakia in the group stage, as well as the stalemate against Ukraine that provoked such fan fury. Their solitary win came against Romania in their second game. Of all the memories they will take from Euro 2024, none will last as long as the sight of De Bruyne and his team-mates being verbally abused by their own supporters in Stuttgart.

Unfortunately for Belgium, the disappointment attached to their exit is compounded because, one by one, their more cherished players are either leaving the sport or reaching a point in their lives when age becomes the hardest opponent.

De Bruyne made it clear he had no intention of Euro 2024 being his last involvement in international football. He wanted to carry on, he said, and it made complete sense that he should feel that way.

Yes, he will be 34 at the next World Cup – no longer, perhaps, the player Hazard described recently as the best in the world. Yet Belgium, without De Bruyne, would be a considerably lesser team. 

It is not so easy to imagine the unfortunate Jan Vertonghen – scorer of the own goal that put France into the quarterfinals – joining him, given that he is 37 and has already had 17 years with the national team.

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(Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

It would be wrong, though, to think that Belgium need to rip it all up to start again, or that they are facing a mass exodus of their best-known players.

Romelu Lukaku, for example, is 31 and, though you find yourself wanting to check the accuracy of the numbers sometimes, his career statistics confirm he is a better striker than he has shown in this tournament.

It is just a pity, perhaps, for Belgium that the art of goalscoring deserted him at such an important time. Lukaku’s finishing has always been erratic and, let’s face it, there are times when he lacks the sureness of touch that is usually associated with the sport’s top performers. But his statistics against France were startling: 20 touches throughout the entire game, seven passes, one shot, xG of 0.03 and 12 occasions when he lost the ball.

Belgium did not score in three of their four matches and Lukaku will have to accept that these are numbers that will put him under scrutiny.

Maybe, though, it is time for others to take a bit more responsibility.

Leandro Trossard, such an elegant performer for Arsenal, was dropped from the France tie because of his inability to have a positive impact against Ukraine. Youri Tielemans was also left out. Amadou Onana did little to make Mbappe regret saying “who?” when asked before the match if they would swap shirts after the final whistle.

As for Jeremy Doku, he can be added to the list of players in this tournament who perform better in the colours of Manchester City than they do for their national team.

And De Bruyne? Even on a difficult evening, he still played the outstanding pass of the match, presenting Yannick Carrasco with a chance to run into the French penalty area early in the second half.

But it ended unhappily, as it has so many times before, and the saddest thing for him, perhaps, is that he is running out of chances to put it right.

(Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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