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Potential is good, now Belgium have to deliver a trophy


Success driven: Belgium boss Roberto Martinez should be thinking about World Cup glory

Success driven: Belgium boss Roberto Martinez should be thinking about World Cup glory

AFP/Getty Images

Success driven: Belgium boss Roberto Martinez should be thinking about World Cup glory

For any young footballer pulling on an England jersey, at the time it was a label that weighed heavily.

The so-called golden generation, circa 2002 to 2006, promised so much, yet delivered little.

It never happened for Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand and the rest on the international stage.

Cursed by the burden of hype and expectation, they became sporting shorthand for unfulfilled promise.

So there is reason to be wary about conferring the same high praise on Belgium's supremely talented squad.

"A World Cup does not respect a golden generation," coach Roberto Martinez cautioned before the tournament.

The parallels come into focus ahead of the sides' meeting tomorrow night in a fixture which, as well as deciding top spot in Group G, illustrates the changing of the generational guard.

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Now it is Belgium, so rich in talent and ability, who face the challenge of delivering.

Followers of the Premier League know all about the passing of Kevin de Bruyne, the skill of Eden Hazard and the finishing of Romelu Lukaku.

At the back a defensive unit of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany has the reassuring presence of Thibaut Courtois in goal.

The talent pool also includes Dries Mertens, Yannick Carrasco, Axel Witsel - and the list goes on and on.

To produce so many high-class players is impressive, but from a population of just over 11 million makes it truly remarkable.

Nor is it strictly accurate to describe this as a golden generation - the Under-21 and Under-17 sides are excelling too.

So how did such a small nation produce so many talented players? For the answer, you have to go back 20 years.

When Belgium were eliminated at the group stage of the 1998 World Cup, it became a watershed moment.

Money was invested, a blueprint for the future drawn up. The country's youth structure was transformed.

Every youth team was told to play the fluid 4-3-3 formation favoured by the national side.

League tables were scrapped for Under-7 and Under-8 teams, with the focus on developing players rather than results.

A joint initiative with the government saw eight football training colleges, known as Topsport schools, introduced between 1998 and 2002.

It was targeted at the most talented boys and girls, aged between 14 and 18, who were given extra training during the normal curriculum.

Courtois, Mertens, De Bruyne and Witsel all benefited from the system. So did countless others.

Belgium now have a squad to rival any in Russia.

The 5-2 win over Tunisia on Saturday showcased the attacking talents of Hazard and De Bruyne, plus the finishing of Lukaku. But it also revealed defensive issues that could be exploited by more streetwise opposition.

More generally, the failure to make it beyond the last-eight at their last two major tournaments - the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 - has tempered expectation.

Martinez knows the importance of managing that expectation.

After Saturday's win, he said: "To be a favourite in a World Cup, you need to have the know-how of winning a World Cup.

"The World Cup is something that probably gives you an advantage psychologically when you've won it before."

However, there is belief that this generation can shine.

Alderweireld said: "Hopefully we can do something special."

Among the Belgian fans in Russia, the mood is expectant.

Gerry Leiven feels they can win the World Cup.

"Look at our starting XI, look at the other 12 players. We're just the strongest team at the World Cup," he said.

His friend Thibaut van Vracem is also confident.

"Ten or 15 years ago we came up with an idea, and the idea was let's train our people from when they are five-years-old," Van Vracem said.

"And we did - we started to train our people and develop this pool of people who could take on the world.

"We have people now who can rival the Ronaldos, the Messis, the Neymars. We've a team worthy of winning the World Cup."

Lancelot Meulewaeter, a Belgian-based broadcaster covering the World Cup, said pre-tournament targets have been revised.

"Before the World Cup we would have said that quarter-finals would be good," he said.

"But seeing everything that has happened - with Germany losing, Brazil not being that good - we are growing confident."

Of course, promise and potential must still be delivered on -and that is never certain.

Tomorrow night's game against England is a reminder of that.

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