Kevin De Bruyne’s assessment might have been blunt, but it is true. The world’s most creative midfielder has been in fairly forthright form in Qatar, expressing his own bafflement when he was awarded the player of the match award for a subdued display against Canada, and then using an interview with The Guardian to dismiss his own team’s chances of winning the World Cup. “No chance,” he said. “We’re too old.”
He is right, too. It has been eight years since Belgium’s so-called golden generation made its debut at this tournament. In Brazil in 2014, it was still a young team, a touch inexperienced, ever so slightly green. But still, that was the moment the clock started ticking.
Like so many things in soccer, the World Cup is special because it is rare; that is why Gianni Infantino’s idea to stage it every two seasons would have been so harmful. Its value lies in the fact that each group of players, no matter how good, has to peak at exactly the right time to stand a chance.
For Belgium, that came in Russia in 2018, when its defense was seasoned, not creaking; when De Bruyne and Eden Hazard were mature; when Romelu Lukaku was not starting to show signs of wear and tear. That team’s achievement should not be underestimated: for a nation the size of Belgium to reach a World Cup semifinal is admirable.
But ultimately, it fell short. Sadly, brutally, that was its chance gone. No generation of players gets three chances at a World Cup, not at their peak. Belgium could still run deep into this tournament, of course. There is sufficient talent at Roberto Martínez’s disposal to trouble almost anyone in the tournament. De Bruyne’s frankness is not misplaced, though. It is an immutable law of the sport that his team is, now, too old to win it.