For some players being at the World Cup is almost a contractual obligation, and they plod through their games just hoping to avoid injury before pre-season training at their day job starts, or before they’ve confirmed a move to Manchester City or PSG. If this is particularly true of players that already play – or want to play – for the big European club teams, then it’s something most international teams have to deal with, as long as they have at least one recognisable star. Sometimes it’s most clear when a team only has one; watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s exasperation with his mediocre national team-mates is quite often a delight, simply because of the school playground emotional dynamics that seem to result. Watching Portugal is a bit like this, but Ronaldo usually comes across like that kid in the playground with the new boots who never passes, which makes it less entertaining.
For these players club > country, which results in fairly lacklustre games, no rare thing in international football. Dullness also comes from the way the competitions are structured in such a way as to allow for the development of the concept of “the usual suspects” who you “can never write off.” These teams are usually the seeds minus the traditional blip (this year it’s Switzerland, in 2010 it was South Africa): Germany, Italy, France, Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands, sometimes Portugal, maybe England at a push. Because of this fairly unaltering hierarchy, though, there are usual suspects at every level, so you also have those teams that seem to always be there but whose only role seems to be to offer the desired cushy second round tie: the Scandinavians, Switzerland, an occasional Balkan state, Japan, South Korea. This also seems the immediate destiny of teams like Ivory Coast and Ghana.
What there aren’t much these days are genuinely exciting teams. By that, I mean a group of 11 players who are more than the sum of their parts, who are exciting to watch because of the way they interact with one another. Often they are young and relatively unknown. Germany in 2010 were like this; their victory over England was one of those that is also a “victory for football.” Perhaps the team with the most potential for this sort of excitement in 2014 are the Belgians. They’re not “usual suspects” in either sense: they’re unlikely to win it and they’re not always there. This will be the first time they’ve qualified for a World Cup since 2002, where they reached the round of 16. Their Euros record is even worse: the last one they qualified for was 2000, and that’s because they were hosting it. Before that you have to go back to 1984. What this means is that the team that assembles in Belo Horizonte on June 17th for their first game against Algeria will be one that is to all intents and purposes unknown to the world footballing audience.
Of course there are other teams of whom that is true (does anyone know anything about the Hondurans, for instance?) but what marks out the Belgians is the range of talent they can call on: Thibaut Courtois or Simon Mignolet in goal; a choice of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Daniel Van Buyten, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen in defence; Nacer Chadli, Mousa Dembele, Steven Defour, Kevin De Bruyne, Marouane Fellaini (ahem), Adnan Januzaj, Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, Axel Witsel in midfield/attack; Romelu Lukaku up front. By any measure, that is not a bad group of players. If they played in a Liverpool-style attacking formation, a front four of Januzaj, Hazard, Mirallas and Lukaku is pretty mouthwatering.
What should we expect from them though? Perusal of the internet reveals that they have been given the dispiriting moniker “The New Golden Generation”, which almost certainly condemns them to suffer from being over-hyped. And how much do they care about the World Cup, given they’re all players doing well for their clubs and are still quite young? The fan in me finds it hard not to get carried away by fantasy and imagine a perfectly calibrated team buoyed by a sheer love of the game. Clearly that’s not going to be the case, but it does raise an interesting question. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Ian Crouch questioned our conceptions of what athletic success means in a set of reflections initiated by a speech given by Kevin Durant on the occasion of his election as this year’s NBA M.V.P. (Most Valuable Player). “Unlike the aggressive, competitive, and sometimes vicious player whom we watch on the court,” Crouch wrote, “Durant was open, vulnerable, emotionally brave, and sincere. He reminded everyone not only of his own humanity but also of that of his teammates. They joined him onstage, and he took the time to address each of them, often sharing deeply personal stories.” If Crouch saw in Durant’s words another criterion of success, an old-fashioned one almost religious in its attention to moral uprightness, he broadens this into a consideration of the place of “the champion” as an alternative gauge of greatness:
The idea of championships as the ultimate expression of athletic success has gained a firm grip on the basketball psyche in recent years, bolstered by former greats … who continue to be held to account for their near-misses and their teams’ failures. It has been peddled especially hard by the kinds of sportswriters who often fret about players’ so-called legacies. The looming shadow of history seems omnipresent, as if moments no longer matter in real time but only in how they will change the rankings of the best and worst of all time. But this is a myopic kind of fandom, and it confuses what a spectator wants – which is to vicariously win something – with the myriad experiences that a player might hope to accumulate in his career. Durant offered another way: [his team] the Thunder are still alive in the playoffs, but, regardless of what happens, this was his championship moment. And it could be the fans’ moment, too—surely as meaningful and as thrilling as getting to see him riding on the back of a float holding a trophy.
The myopia Crouch talks about is precisely the kind that creates labels like “Golden Generation,” which are always destined to be disappointing. Not that anyone will say it was a great World Cup because Eden Hazard tears up when talking about how much he loves Axel Witsel, but when it is so difficult to assess what a team might do one response might just be: who cares? If the main question of Belgium is “how good are they?” another version, one I find more exciting – and, yes, more romantic – is: “how good could they be?” Even this question is usually couched in terms of improvement and “player development” and the sort of stuff that makes us think about players’ “trophy cabinets” and “medal collections,” but when you have teams made up of exciting players with no real pressure or predecessors to live up to (save for the “original” Belgium “Golden Generation,” that is), the mind wanders and is allowed space to imagine different scenarios. Personally I’d like them to play exciting attacking football unhindered by worries about winning the tournament, and for them to be a refreshing antidote to the slog-a-thon that almost undoubtedly will accompany England’s campaign, or the tired tiki-taka of Spain’s. But we’ll see. Part of the benefit of imagining different scenarios is it lessens the importance of what actually happens (unless you’re Belgian, presumably).
Posted by Mark West