It Sucks How Much Belgium Sucks | Defector

Belgium is lucky. If not for England’s commitment to playing with all the liveliness and flexibility of a water-logged cadaver, and the rest of the world’s hard-earned right to delight in English misery, Belgium’s dreadful showing at the Euros would be a bigger story.

The team has been a nightmare all tournament long. Things got off to an inauspicious start when the Belgians—in whose name the concept of the “dark horse” has been beaten to death by uncreative commentators who’ve tagged them with the label for an entire decade now—lost to Slovakia in a match that, by FIFA’s rankings, qualified as the biggest upset in European Championship history. (Georgia’s win over Portugal on Wednesday has since surpassed Belgium-Slovakia as the biggest upset ever.) The story of that match was striker Romelu Lukaku’s Kafkaesque inability to put the ball into the back in the net, at least when it would actually count. Several times one of the best strikers of his generation found himself with a golden opportunity to do the thing he’s an expert at; each time he managed to flub the chance, each miss less explicable than the last, each failure ratcheting up the frustration and confusion evident on Lukaku’s face.

To be fair to Lukaku, Belgium as a whole played like shit the entire game. The midfield was wooden, wholly incapable of advancing the ball forward to star man Kevin De Bruyne, who had to run the entire midfield by himself, looking like the one player-controlled character next to a couple of NPCs. Jérémy Doku was a bright spot whenever the ball came to him, running around or by or over all comers as is his wont, but whenever it came time to set up a teammate, his passes and crosses were either misaimed, mistimed, or found Lukaku, which was no help. Defensively, the team was disorganized and struggled to stand up against even modest attacking pressure. No two Belgians seemed to have even a semblance of synergy. After any of the many overhit passes, miscontrols, and wayward shots, you’d usually see the players turning their backs to one another, throwing up their hands in annoyance—suggestive hints that the vibes within the team are bad.

Nothing that’s happened since the Slovakia game has changed those impressions much. Belgium saved its tournament against Romania a few days later with a deceptively comfortable 2-0 win that featured most of the same problems, just with a slightly less star-crossed Lukaku and an improved midfield, with Youri Tielemans starting in place of Orel Mangala. Wednesday’s group-ender against Ukraine was more of the same: no synergy, no fluidity, no ideas, absolutely atrocious play. Nevertheless, the 0-0 draw gave Belgium enough to claim the second spot in the group and a place in the knockout rounds. But a team of Belgium’s stature and talent squeaking through the weakest group in the tournament, relying on tiebreakers to finish above the cut in the group table’s four-way four-point tie, is embarrassing.

I hate how much I hate watching Belgium. I have long pulled for the Belgians as a fan of the famous golden generation. A tiny country suddenly birthing a dozen or so elite talents over the span of just a few years, and building a national team legitimately capable of winning one of the major tournaments—what’s not to love? Following these guys for club and country has been a blast, and it’s a huge bummer watching them go out like this.

After more than 10 years on the scene, that generation is beginning to fade away. Most of its members aren’t there in Germany. Eden Hazard has retired. (I can picture him watching Wednesday’s game, shaking his head in dismay while sipping a soft drink to wash down the last bite of a hamburger, contemplating whether ordering another might help him eradicate the metaphorical bad taste the match left him with.) Thibaut Courtois wasn’t called up due to some beef with manager Domenico Tedesco. (Even before getting to the awful performances in the Euros, falling out with the best goalkeeper in the world is a fireable offense.)

Really only De Bruyne and Lukaku remain core players in the current national team setup. De Bruyne has been excellent during the Euros, though, absent help, his contributions haven’t been as impactful as normal. And aside from the bad finishing (something that also plagued him at the last World Cup), Lukaku has actually been good as a constant source of advantages with his movement, strength, and holdup play. But De Bruyne’s typical greatness, Lukaku’s potency in everything leading up to taking a shot, and Doku’s unstoppable dribbling haven’t synched up together. Because of that, amidst the surrounding desert devoid of good play, the isolated successes of those three have been more mirage than oasis. From the look of it, it seems just as painful to play for this team as it does to watch it.

Granted, the tournament isn’t over. You could make a case that Belgium’s personnel is better suited to compete with stronger teams, where they can concede the initiative to the opposition, trading the stiff and ineffective long possessions of their group stage matches for a game of fast transitions, where De Bruyne, Lukaku, and Doku really shine. That won’t fix the fact that Belgium’s back line is weak, and unless Lukaku remembers that the job is to kick the ball past the keeper, not right at him, even improved attacks will likely still end up in the Twilight Zone.

Belgium’s opponent in the round of 16 is France, who’ve also looked boring and kind of bad but is still France. That match will likely be the end of Belgium’s tournament, and could very well be the swan song for a remarkable generation that changed the face of Belgian soccer. Crazier things have happened, but there’s only a glimmer of hope that Belgium might beat France and go on one last memorable run. In lieu of that, I’d be content to settle for a game that simply doesn’t make my eyes bleed.

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