A mountain of expectation on a generation vs the mountain on expectation on a superstar? This is what defines football to its very core, especially modern football. A battle between individualism and superstardom or one for all and all for one, the elite team mentality.
On Sunday, Portugal will face Belgium at the Estadio La Cartuja. But the focus, as the focus has been since everything was announced, will be on England vs Germany at Wembley. The world has had one single focus since the fixture list was announced and given the incredible hype surrounding the game, who on this planet could even blame them? It was England vs Germany after all, a grudge match of supreme proportions taking place at the home of English football.
No wonder the world has been so enthralled with it all but in the process, they’ve forgotten about everything else. They forgot about Italy battling Austria, about Wales and Denmark, about Croatia vs Spain and even about Belgium vs Portugal. Now the first three is forgivable even if Italy v Austria might have proven to be one of the best games of the tournament, it’s still forgivable. But forgetting about Belgium v Portugal? That’s a sin not even holy water could wash away because this is a war for football.
Now sure, the words ‘overdramatic’ might have crossed your mind for a few seconds because it’s Belgium vs Portugal, how on earth is this a war for football itself? Well, that’s rather simple because as things go, the two national teams are the antithesis of each other in ever possible way. It’s the glorious battle between the individualism and the team, the superstar against the golden generation and, more importantly, a consistent production of one great player against a plan for greatness.
Now Belgium, as far as being a footballing nation goes, have always been a footnote in history but never a major player. That was partly because the creation of their first pro league didn’t take place until 1974 even if they had amateur and non-amateur football well before that. Yet, that didn’t stop them from playing in World Cups and Euros with participation medals at five World Cups alongside a third place finish at the 1972 Euros.
That, until recently, was their greatest achievement as an international side but then again given the fact that only four countries played in the tournament, it’s not really much. And yet, that spurred the nation on to create their first pro-league (called the Jupiler League since 1995) which helped transform Belgium football. But unlike most pro-leagues, it started badly as players from across the world opted to sign for insane amounts of money because of the lax tax rules.
However, what that helped with was Belgium’s first wave of brilliance. A semi-final at the 1986 World Cup, with the likes of Enzo Scifo, Franky Vercauteren and Jan Ceulemans losing only to eventual winners Argentina. That was followed by another knockout stage performance but then consecutive group stage exists, at the 1998 World Cup and 2000 Euros (of which they were co-hosts) had many doubting just what Belgian football could do.
Belgium responded to their critics by not qualifying for any tournament for eight years and it took that incredible collapse for everyone to react. Michel Sablon, the man who witnessed the 1986 team in action, was at the heart of it all as he set up a plan in mid-2006 with nothing but a blank piece of paper. He, alongside several others, somehow managed to revolutionise Belgian football with a simple and yet, what at the time, was the insane idea of consistency.
15 years later and the results are evident. How a country with a population of 11 million, with 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues has somehow managed to produce – and there are no qualms about this phrase no matter how cliché it maybe because it fits them perfectly – a golden generation to end all golden generations of footballers is absurd. This is what time, effort and all their planning came down to, producing a team this talented to give them their best chance at winning something and it worked.
Now Portugal have been anything but. While Belgium worked and created a plan, the Portuguese have stuck to their guns and why not? When a country has the capacity and the capability to churn out superstar talents at an otherworldly rate, then why not keep at it? Because while Brazil, Argentina, France and even Italy have produced a generation worth of era defining players, no one has done it better than Portugal at their very best.
Think Cristiano Ronaldo. Need we even go on? A man, even at 36, who is considered to be one of the best in the world, arguably one of modern football’s legends and arguably one of the greatest the world will ever get the pleasure to watch play. An era defining player who, almost singlehandedly at times has dragged his country across the line. Then there’s Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Deco, Nuno Gomes, Eusebio and so many others.
But that’s not even the kicker; because the thing that separates the two sides, the reason why they’re the very antithesis of each other, polar opposites so to speak is because without a superstar or a man dragging them across, Portugal have struggled. Think about their greatest performances at an international tournament; the 1966 World Cup? Eusebio was utterly marvellous and netted 9 goals to drag his side across, he had help but still.
The 2000 Euros? Rui Costa, Luis Figo and an absolutely phenomenal tournament from Nuno Gomes with only Patrick Kluivert and Savo Milosevic outscoring him. Sergio Conceicao chipped in as well. What about Euro 2004? Well, keep Rui Costa, Luis Figo and add Deco, a young Cristiano Ronaldo plus Helder Postiga, Tiago and you’d expect the trophy but Greece had other ideas. Euro 2012 couldn’t be the same then?
Well, you remove Rui Costa, Deco and Luis Figo and replace them with Nani, Ricardo Quaresma, an older Helder Postiga, an otherworldly Cristiano Ronaldo and a few others. Only twice have Portugal had a team where the sum of the parts was greater than the individual; their semi-final run at the 1984 Euros and the 65 minutes at the 2016 Euro final. But the point remains and on paper, this game should be a canter for the Belgium side especially when you consider the fact that Portugal aren’t the side they were five years ago.
Ronaldo is ageing and they’ve always been overdependent on him, they’re vulnerable to pace, heavy-footed at the back and their defensive line can be undone by a pair of astute wing-backs. Plus there’s Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Bernardo Silva’s struggles to cope with everything, Fernando Santos’ refusal to adapt and a whole other lot of issues. But when you’re the first golden generation and you’re facing the last chance a legacy, the hurdle becomes slightly larger.
Because after all their years of peerless excellence, all that hard work and effort put into transforming the team and creating a generation worthy, it can’t end with nothing, can it? Does it mean that the plan worked, even if you created a golden gen that ends with empty trophy cabinets? Especially with the under-21s failing to qualify for the summer’s Euros with under-19s ranked 16th in Europe, it shows that things might need another tweak. There are still talented young players there, a fine infrastructure in place to nurture and help them thrive and yet, this could be their last chance.
Well, second last with a World Cup coming up but for a few players here, a last chance and possibly their best chance given how open the bracket seems to be. And of all the teams they come up against, they’re set to battle the one side who have created as many superstars as Belgium’s golden generation have created in one go. It’s the game that at its very core is a battle for football’s ideologies and one that makes it so ruddy lovely. Belgium’s super team, one decades in the making, or a team built to help their greatest player thrive. Definitely more than just another knockout game.