Axel Witsel, the Belgium midfield player, has a nice line on N’Golo Kante, the Chelsea and France dynamo who plays in the same position as Witsel does. “A good thing he’s not around,” smiled Witsel ahead of Thursday's semi-final of the Uefa Nations League. “He’s got six lungs and 36 legs!”
Kante is self-isolating following a positive Covid-19 test and will miss the meeting in Turin between neighbours who cannot help but measure themselves against each other by units of six. France’s population is six times the size of Belgium’s. France have reached half a dozen World Cup or European Championship finals. Belgium have reached just one.
But here’s the paradox: France are the reigning world champions; yet Belgium have been ranked No 1 in the world by Fifa for almost the entire time Les Bleus have spent admiring their latest World Cup triumph.
The last semi-final between Belgium and France was tight, and the stakes could hardly have been higher. In Saint Petersburg, Russia, France won thanks to Samuel Umtiti’s only goal of the evening. Five nights later in Moscow they scored four times to see off Croatia in the 2018 World Cup final.
Witsel, speaking ahead of the first meeting with France since the World Cup, recalls “a great disappointment,” from that night but also “mixed feelings: we were disappointed to have been knocked out but also proud to have gone so far.”
A standard had been set at that tournament. When Belgium fell out of this year’s European Championship to Italy in the quarter-finals, it was not met. The Red Devils may take some consolation that in the last two tournaments they have played, they have been eliminated by the eventual winners. But there is still an impatience that their so-called ‘golden generation’ needs silverware, a legacy, before the best of them have passed their peak years.
The Nations League, whose second edition comes to a close with Sunday’s final, is that opportunity. It would be a first. Belgium’s greatest achievement as a senior men’s team is the silver medal they collected, in Italy, at the European Championship way back in 1980.
Head coach Roberto Martinez has already waved goodbye to one member of the exceptional generation, Vincent Kompany, who retired from international football in 2018. But he hopes to squeeze another year or so out of the likes of Jan Vertonghen, 34 and Toby Alderweireld, who is 32 and moved during the summer to Al-Duhail in the Qatar Stars League. Both should line up on Thursday in front of Thibaut Courtois, who has had a difficult fortnight with Real Madrid, but remains a pillar of strength in goal.
There are high hopes that Courtois’s Madrid team-mate Eden Hazard, now 30, is coming out of a wretched two-year sequence of injuries and irregular form. “It’s a great shame we haven’t seen Eden at his happiest or playing more for the last two seasons,” Martinez told As, the Spanish newspaper. “It’s a question of time. He’s unique and as a man and as a footballer, you can have absolute faith in him.”
Hazard was not fit for the key European Championship match against Italy in July. Kevin de Bruyne played that quarter-final in grave pain from torn ankle ligaments. Both are in northern Italy and available to Martinez, who has also rewarded, with inclusion in his squad, the strong club form of the likes of Leandro Trossard, of Brighton and the Bruges pair, Hans Vanaken and Charles de Ketelaere.
Bruges’ draw with Paris Saint-Germain and their win against RB Leipzig reminded this season’s Champions League that not all the best native talent is exported from Belgian clubs. De Ketelaere, 20, has the potential to spearhead post-golden generation excellence.
Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku, 28, should have several more tournaments in him, too, although how many are under the watch of Martinez, who took over as head coach in 2016, is a matter of recent conjecture.
The Spaniard, formerly manager of Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton, is of interest to Barcelona, a club weighing up potential future coaches. His Belgium contract runs until next December, and the 2022 World Cup.
Martinez deflects talk of any imminent move back into club football, or any notion of ‘revenge’ for Belgium against France. But the desire for significant silverware is ardent.
“To say we need it [a trophy] would be too strong,” said the coach. “But this is a special generation, who have improved together and it would be wonderful, and liberating for them and the future of Belgian football, to win a tournament. I think they deserve it.”