DOHA, Qatar — In 2010, I wrote a piece for The Times of London about how no country could match Belgium’s immensely gifted group of young people — then aged 16 to 22 — and wondered if they had a could win the World Cup in 2014 or 2018. Unbeknownst to me, Vincent Kompany, already an established player at Manchester City, had wondered the same thing.
“It was a few years before that, I think 2003 or 2004,” he told me and Julien Laurens when we sat down with him for an episode of “Gab and Juls Meets…”.
“I was just a kid, maybe 17, but I talked about how we Belgians had an inferiority complex, maybe because we are a small country. But at youth level at Anderlecht we had such a strong team and we beat everyone.” comfortable – even Real Madrid. And then we broke into the first team and all of a sudden we couldn’t compete. “
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And yet that generation of Belgian players participated as a group. With Kompany as a sort of “big brother” figure, they topped the FIFA rankings from 2017 to 2021 and have never been outside the top five since 2014. What did they have to show in terms of silverware? Three quarterfinals and a semifinal in major tournaments. And now that they open Qatar 2022 against Canada on Wednesday night, the question is whether that chance is closed.
At 36, Kompany is now Burnley’s manager, and they are top of England’s second flight in his first season in charge. He played his last game for Belgium in 2019, but it is clear that his feelings for the “Red Devils” remain strong.
“We were number one in the world for six or seven years, the consistency was there,” he says. “But it’s a tournament and there’s a draw and anything can happen. And it’s nice margins. Look at what happened in 2018. We’re in the group stage and we’re playing England in the last game, and we know that the losing team will have the easier way to the final. So what do we do? Of course we win this game and all of a sudden we have to get past Japan, Brazil and France.”
Kompany says third place at the last World Cup was still a fantastic result for Belgium, and he’s right. Even the semi-final defeat to France, decided by Samuel Umtiti’s goal, came by the narrowest of margins. It is indeed one of the peculiarities of the World Cup. Judgments come through, heroes are anointed, villains are decreed, and huge carbon footprints are generated when drawing conclusions. And yet a team plays at most seven games.
“It’s nothing… seven games,” says Kompany. “And a World Cup is different from anything else. You have to peak at the right time. We were at our peak in 2018 against Brazil in the quarter-final and we had to be because they were so good. And then the semi-final was against France, arranged down to the last detail… [France keeper] Hugo Lloris made a great save from Toby Alderweireld, and they scored on a corner kick. Those are margins. I love to participate in World Cups and tournaments like that… I love it. But I never draw conclusions from it. It’s pointless. The best team in the world [rarely] win the World Cup.”
It’s part of the vicious appeal of this tournament. The club’s play rewards consistency of the sort that his old manager, Pep Guardiola, put together at Manchester City, winning four of the last five Premier League titles. The World Cup rewards moments, peaks and coincidences. That may be why he is still optimistic about Belgium.
“I think they can [win it]”, he says. “Other teams may be favorites too, but they can win it the same way Italy won it [in 2006]. With an experienced team, disciplined and organized and the advantage that you have been together for a long time. And having match winners and game changers in the team. You need that in tournaments.”
You can see where he comes from. There is plenty of experience, from Thibaut Courtois between the posts, to Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the back, to Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne and Yannick Carrasco in midfield, to Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard further down the field.
Sure, Hazard is injured and has had a tough 18 months, while Lukaku is trying to get back to fitness and may not be back for the group stage. And yes, experience is another word for “old” in football parlance. But age is more of an issue during a long club season with many matches. For a few weeks in December, even someone in their mid-thirties can get it out. And while Hazard and Lukaku remain question marks, who’s to say they aren’t when it all comes together randomly, even briefly?
Plus, there’s no arguing when it comes to contest winners; perhaps only France and Brazil are more blessed in that area. Belgium has both a closed keeper in Courtois and arguably the best attacking midfielder in the world in De Bruyne. They just have to click at the right time in some of the right knockout games… and who knows?
Former Belgium captain Vincent Kompany takes part in the Gab & Juls Show and outlines why Kevin De Bruyne is so important to his country.
Having played with him for years at Belgium and Manchester City, Kompany beams positively when he talks about De Bruyne.
“He has something about him, which is very Belgian … he is modest,” says Kompany. “That makes him likeable. But other than that it’s just his football brain. You give him a plan and he will conduct the orchestra. He sees the plan, he closes his eyes and he sees it. He receives the ball and he knows everything he’s going to do and he executes it. You just have to run and be ready to receive the ball because it will be there. And that’s very special.
“There’s a big part of his game that you don’t see. And it’s maybe even more special than what he does when he has the ball at his feet.”
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Let Kompany talk about Belgium and he exudes tension. You guess if he could, he’d love to be a part of it even now. Heck, he knows Hazard hasn’t been a Hazard for almost three years, and yet he can’t help but sing his praises: “Kevin executes the plan, Eden doesn’t need a plan, he’s the plan, put him on the pitch and let him go!” Kompany is now an adult, manager and ex-pro, but his anticipation and enthusiasm is that of a fan.
His day job these days is in Burnley, but part of his heart and soul is with his group of little brothers in Qatar. The Golden Generation has yet to win a trophy. Yes, they are bruised and battered and could perhaps use a cleaning. But guess what? Gold does not rust. And as Kompany knows, you only need to shine and sparkle for a few moments during a World Cup, as long as it’s the right moments.