Euro 2016: Belgium and Wales - The story of two 'Golden Generations'
Carrying the tag of the Golden Generation
If nothing else, the summer of 2016 has been witness to some mouth watering television programming. Led by the recently concluded Game of Thrones season 6 and complemented by footballing showpieces, Copa America Centenario and UEFA Euro, 2016, it has had something for everybody. Almost a fortnight back now, Game of Thrones wowed audiences around the world with its exhilarating and masterfully crafted Battle of the Bastards and a few nights ago, The Euros unveiled its very own version of a classic battle when Belgium took on Wales in a quarterfinal showdown at the Stade Pierre-Mauroy in Lille.
A Belgian’s bated breath, a Welshman’s wishful wondering and these two nations’ collective football fantasies were just some of the courses that were on offer when this much-anticipated clash of the evenly matched kicked off under a clear, starry French sky. It was also every writer’s dream as a clash filled with limitless literary potential, previews and reviews alike!
This Belgium team has been carrying the “golden generation” tag for quite a while now. Nurtured to perfection by manager Marc Wilmots and his predecessor George Leekens, it seemed as though Belgium was finally ready to take the world stage by storm at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. It all fell pretty flat for Belgium though who were eliminated at the quarter-final stage by eventual finalists Argentina.
This was however seen as a stepping stone for greater successes in the future for a team with an average age in the early to mid-20s. The core of the Belgium team has remained the same since the world cup in Brazil and at no. 2 in the FIFA world rankings Belgium entered the match up with the obvious label of overwhelming favourites.
Prior to this game, Belgium had pretty much been one of the teams of the tournament if we were to excuse ourselves for a few moments and look away from the exploits of House Iceland, or should I say Stark of Reykjavik. If not completely in-sync with each other during the group stages, a 3-0 defeat of Ireland notwithstanding, Belgium really burst into life as a team in its round of 16 clash against Hungary.
Focal to this was the delayed emergence of talisman Eden Hazard who terrorized the Hungarian defence with his pace and infinite skulduggery.Hazard’s exploits that night were ably supported by his partners in crime, Lukaku and De Bruyne while Witsel (the brains behind the Belgium team as per the manager) and Nainggolan played perfect supports for the attacking line up front.
The backline led by Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen successfully kept its third consecutive blank sheet and following the opening match debacle against the Azzurri had rapidly progressed into one of the meanest defences at this edition of the Euros. It couldn’t hurt that Tottenham centre-back Toby Alderweireld also scored the opening goal against Hungary.
Coach Mark Wilmots would have been a happy man seeing his men come together as a unit at the most opportune of times and for him and his support staff, it was merely to be a job of ensuring that the same levels of intensity and fitness were maintained when playtime dawned on Friday night.
Wales have their own ‘Golden Generation’ now
For 58 years Wales had been sitting tight, wedged into one corner of the United Kingdom and diligently paying its dues. In all this time they bred footballers of varying pedigrees with some making it to the very top of the club game. The likes of Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, Robbie Savage and Craig Bellamy came and saw but could never conquer on the international stage.
All that started to change when Chris Coleman inherited a group of boys from his predecessor Gary Speed, a group of boys so prodigiously talented that they were labelled Wales’ golden generation. There was no disappointment in store anymore. Led by the most expensive player in the world, Gareth “Speed Racer” Bale, Wales passed, kicked and chipped its way into Euro 2016. After all those years of international exile, it was finally Wales’ time to shine!
So far, Gareth Bale had been simply unstoppable this tournament. He scored with his opening free kick of the tournament and followed it up with an audacious strike against England. Big brother who? A goal against Russia followed and just like that Bale became the top scorer of the tournament, later joined by France’s Antoine Griezmann. Even if he doesn’t score you just cannot keep GB11 out of the picture.
If you’re an opposition defender, he’s one of those players who’ll keep popping up anywhere and everywhere around you on the pitch and your nightmares later. If one needs confirmation of this, just track down Bale’s Northern Ireland namesake Gareth McAuley.
McAuley recently earned the unfortunate distinction of having turned in a ferociously whipped low Bale cross into his own net which ultimately sent his team packing from the Euros and Wales into their tryst with Belgium and destiny. Was it once again going to be a Balestorm in Lille or did the Belgians possess deep enough pockets to store 100 million euros.
Their time to shine!
On Friday night, when the Welsh 11 took the field, they did so knowing that within moments, they would be playing quite simply the biggest match in their country’s 140 year footballing history. Yes, Wales did reach the quarter finals of 1958 world cup where they lost to ultimate champions Brazil, thanks to a goal from a certain 17-year-old by the name of Pele, the wider audience and incredible competitiveness of present day football means this match was easily a more momentous one for the only remaining United Kingdom nation in the tournament.
In addition to Gareth Bale, the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and captain Ashley Williams (the core of this golden generation of Welsh footballers) who had been instrumental to all Wales success in recent times would once again have their tasks cut out in order to maintain a level playing field against the might of the Red Devils.
Wales needed to keep all their wits together in order to successfully see this one out and keep their wits they did. Up stepped captain courageous Williams to cancel out Radja Nainggolan’s opener. Up stepped Joe Allen to turn in another fabulous display in a Welsh shirt and up stepped Aaron Ramsey to bag a Man of the Match award thanks to two telling contributions, assists for Wales’ first two goals.
However, the real heroes of this match were Wales’ two frontmen who have not yet taken the pitch simultaneously at this year’s Euros so far. Free agent Hal Robson-Kanu and Burnley hitman Sam Vokes both produced individual moments of magic to show the world just how far this Wales team has progressed and send the Belgians crashing out of their own delusion.
It did help the Welsh greatly though that a suspension to general Thomas Vermaelen and an injury to aide de camp Jan Vertonghen meant it was the inexperience of Jordan Lukaku and Jason Denayer that was marshalling Belgium’s back line in battle on this, the most important of nights. On the other hand, Ashley Williams who himself was an injury scare for this game and his troops consisting of Neil Taylor, James Chester, Ben Davies and Chris Gunter engineered a masterclass in the art of defending successfully extinguishing the threat posed by the likes of Hazard, De Bruyne and the oh so amazing Marouane Fellaini.
It was the Devil's March against the Dance of the Dragon!
Wales now go on to face Portugal on the 6th of July in a deadly semi final clash that pits Gareth Bale against Cristiano Ronaldo; teammate against teammate, superstar against superstar. It will, also, by an arm and a half’s distance at the very least, be the greatest sporting occasion in the history of the land of song, fictional events aside.
But what of Belgium? Does this loss sound the death knell for the ever so promising golden generation of Belgian football? Not quite! Remember this is still a very young Belgian side. Most of their stars still have a good two world cups left in their legs and it is widely agreed that footballers reach the pinnacle of their abilities and full maturity only in their late 20s to early 30s.
What has happened cannot be changed but going by theory at least, the best of this Belgium team is yet to come! This is a sentiment that was also expressed by captain Eden Hazard in a post match interview where he also called on the lads to move on from defeat and direct their focus on qualification for the world cup in Russia in two years time.
It sounds oddly romantic when you combine the terms Welsh and Folklore, like the title of a much-loved fairy tale; an urban legend residing in a large dusty volume stored away in some corner of a rustic 16th-century British library that should never be touched.
However, on the night of the 1st of July, 2016, a painstakingly methodically selected group of individuals earning their living by kicking a football and their compulsive gum chewing gaffer managed to get their names etched in Welsh Folklore forever and ever with a superhuman display of not strength, not raw talent but a simple mix of spirit, teamwork and unity.
In layman terms, isotopes are two or more forms of the same element that differ only in terms of their atomic masses. When we speak of the golden generations of footballers for Belgium and Wales, it can be justified in saying that they are isotopes of each other. 11 players each; that gives you 11 protons, i.e. the same atomic number.
The atomic mass can be defined in terms of the number of passes, tackles, interceptions and goals per game and is bound to be different for the two teams. Whosoever scores more in these departments, stays in the game much longer, earns the title of the stable isotope and wins. In this battle of the isotopes, Wales emerged victorious by a country mile and while the half-life of this isotope still remains to be determined, revel in the fact that the emergence of this special group of footballers has certainly aggrandized the life of the beautiful game!