It was the fledgling franchise’s first friendly.
Finally, like a gummed-up engine suddenly clicking, choking, and then roaring into life, Belgium have arrived.
A catatonic entity that had been paralysed by its own coagulated talent, its manager’s incompetence, its heavy burden of expectation, has thrown all of it off and reared up majestically, casting an ominous shadow by reaching its full height.
Or maybe it’s because they were playing Hungary. What had looked like a ho-hum group stage result now looks like a piece of idiot-genius from Marc Wilmots. Having finished second in their group – barely, by goal difference – Belgium were placed on the easier side of a tournament draw so unbalanced, the half still containing Wales, Poland, Portugal and Belgium is at risk of being catapulted by the weight of the opposing side.
Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England are staging a juggernaut skirmish below them, and the bloodied, heaving victor of that will play the ultimate match feeling a little like they’ve already beaten enough heavyweights to have won by now.
So, having eviscerated Hungary, and appearing to have timed their surge perfectly, Belgium must now beat Wales to ascend to the semi-finals. In spite of Wales enjoying a one-man propeller in Gareth Bale – a player so unfairly gifted, in every footballing regard, it seems just unfair – Belgium will be confident of passing that test.
Standing as they are, breathing in the rarefied air, allowing the exalted sunshine to warm their faces, it is very easy to see how astonishingly stacked this Belgium generation is. In almost every department – except, maybe, full back – they have exceptional talent, often two-men deep.
Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet are both very good goalkeepers. Thomas Vermaelen and Toby Alderweireld are very good centre backs. Heck, even though Jan Vertonghen plays left back for his country, he, the others, and the injured Vincent Kompany form perhaps the most imposing centre back group in world football, on paper at least. Thomas Muenier, the Club Brugge player, ably fills the right back spot, the only non-marquee in that defensive unit.
It only gets better, as we scan forward. We find Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini – Fellaini the midfield strongman, not the elbowy ersatz-No.10 – Rajda Nainggolan and Moussa Dembele, a group that appears the most thoroughly equipped midfield battalion in the world.
Kevin de Bruyne, who rivals Germany’s Thomas Muller for pure Raumdeuter-style navigation of the attacking space, is an elegant, lithe foil to Eden Hazard’s low-to-the-ground, devastating scuttling. Then, of course, Wilmots enjoys a deep reservoir of strikers, all of whom seem to have the ideal mix of physicality and technique: Romelu Lukaku, Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, and Divock Origi.
Finally, the squad is drizzled with an indulgent smattering of secondary talent – Dries Mertens, Yannick Carrasco – and young up-and-comers – Jordan Lukaku, Jason Denayer – and then stands, breathing with a steady rhythm, rippling and gleaming as a truly wondrous collection of players.
It’s staggering that Wilmots hasn’t got this group purring earlier than this, and a reason for many Belgians’ yearning for his dismissal. Those complaints have eased since the Hungary drubbing, but a return to Belgium’s incoherent worst will stir them up again.
This is a team most of whom have played together throughout the youth ranks, a lot of whom play in the same league. Close relationships, and a natural chemistry is not something Belgium should have to struggle to develop, in spite of the “team of champions/champion team” sneering.
I once had to push my granddad’s vintage, sky blue MG convertible across a bridge after it had broken down for the umpteenth time. There was something very sad, an itchy, prickling frustration at seeing such a handsome, powerful thing lock up into inaction and impotence.
That MG’s haphazard British engineering isn’t dissimilar to Wilmots’ managerial acumen; it all looks great, and is arranged pleasingly at a glance, but when the key is turned the embarrassing spluttering that emerges is drowned out only by the sighs of a nation of Belgians and impassioned neutrals. I don’t remember ever seeing that car roll joyously through its gears; I hope I can watch Belgium hit their peak again, and against better opposition than Hungary.
As it stands, with the draw as it is and that win over Hungary under their belts, Belgium must now be considering a berth in the final as the absolute minimum. Right now, the Germans look likely to make the final from the bottom half, and Belgium certainly can’t be classed in their tier yet, even with their squad’s potential.
Portugal, Wales and Poland all scraped through their Round of 16 matches, making Belgium’s canter look even more impressive. It’s difficult to imagine an excuse Wilmots could use to justify a fatal stumble in the next two rounds; his players are on form, and will be favourites in every contest until the final. The rest of Europe’s fears are being realised, as this Belgian generation takes the breath away.