Football is a sport of generations. At various times, different nations have fielded formidable teams that neatly combine all areas of the game: attack, midfield and defense. Invariably these teams have hoisted trophies, sometimes several in succession, on the world stage and been crowned by fans as a “golden” group.
This summer in France, a new generation of brilliant Belgian players — Kevin De Bruyne, 24; Eden Hazard, 25; Romelu Lukaku, 23; Toby Alderweireld, 27; Jan Vertonghen, 29; and Radja Nainggolan, 28 — hopes to join the fêted ranks. It’s the country’s most highly touted team in 30 years and, though expectations are colossal, an abundance of world-class skill in every position has helped sketch a blueprint for greatness.
Defensively, Alderweireld’s inventive knack for creating chances and his supreme passing accuracy complement Vertonghen’s control and organization. Nainggolan’s consistency and unbreakable tenacity have made him a crowd favorite, and one of the best modern midfielders in the world. He’s partnered with De Bruyne, a player equipped with long-range shooting accuracy and a vision for astonishing playmaking. Lukaku’s potent scoring up top (he’s netted four goals in four international appearances in 2016 alone) solidifies the team’s potency.
The game played by Vertonghen and his teammates is a different one to the Belgian game of old and each player’s physicality reflects that. “Players are getting stronger because of training and you need to be equally fit to play at the highest level,” says Vertonghen. The addition of experience helps round out the equation.
Superb individual performances are required of all for success in France — moments that showcase what Alderweireld describes as “the ability to turn things around with a free kick or a nice dribble.” But the group has a greater purpose than mere pronouncements of skill. “I think it’s good to win games, but when you win cups and titles you can be called brilliant,” adds Vertonghen, who speaks for the entire team when he says, “Everyone is thinking the same thing: Individuality is what makes the difference in the game, but at the end, it’s the team that wins.”