It’s a dark horse, unless it’s a golden generation. Maybe it’s both. Or neither?
The United States and Belgium were supposed to play a closed-door friendly on the opening day of the World Cup, but canceled the match due to concerns about São Paulo traffic. Now they’ll meet for a place in the quarterfinals with the whole world watching.
So what can we expect? Expectations are subjective. They’ve changed over the years and especially in the last two weeks. For the United States, there was a win, a draw, and then a loss, but all of that was somehow enough to exceed expectations because they were in a—perhaps the—Group of Death. For Belgium, there were three wins but continuing uncertainty about the team’s true quality, which is somehow exactly as expected because they were in an “easy” group. Advancing to the knockout round only requires sufficient points, something both teams achieved.
Instead of focusing on the result, let’s consider which narratives to expect when the two nations face off in Salvador for a place in the quarterfinals.
On the one side, Belgium boasts a “golden generation” of talent, featuring Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Adnan Januzaj, Romelu Lukaku, and Kevin De Bruyne, among others. The quality of Hazard and Courtois is beyond reproach, but Belgium’s lackluster performances against Russia, South Korea, and Algeria left the masses wondering whether the “golden” label was premature. And that’s your first narrative. Is Belgium overrated?
Can a dark horse be overrated? This is the second narrative. Before setting foot in Brazil, the Belgians were hailed as darkhorse favorites—whatever that means. It makes for a good sound bite, but what is expected of a darkhorse? I submit that a quarterfinal appearance meets the expectation, but is not without a tinge of disappointment. A semifinal loss, on the other hand, is acceptable because only “contenders” are expected to make the semifinals.
Even if Belgium defeats the United States and loses in the quarterfinals to, presumably, Argentina, is there anything remarkable about that? No. It’s not great. It’s not awful. It’s building for 2018.
But is this really a golden generation? If Lukaku were playing the way he did through the last Premier League campaign, perhaps the answer would be different. But with disappointing performances, and the emergence of young Divock Origi, no one really knows how to measure Belgium’s attacking prowess. We know they can create, but can they finish?
Distinctly older than the new wave, the defense includes Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, and Jan Vertonghen. Even with Kompany, whose lingering groin injury has cast doubt over his participation, the Belgian defense is hardly impenetrable. Yes, they conceded only one goal in group play, but can you name a single striker from Group H? The American attack is mediocre, but let’s not overestimate the abilities of the Belgian back line against average competition, let alone elite talent.
Dark Horses? Maybe. Golden? Perhaps? But if Eden Hazard can be neutralized, and if his young entourage doesn’t step up, it’s hard to see Belgium putting on a performance worthy of those kinds of expectations.