DOHA, Qatar -- Back in 2010, I wrote a piece for The Times of London about how no country could match Belgium's hugely gifted group of youngsters -- then aged between 16 and 22 -- and wondered whether they could win a World Cup in 2014 or 2018. Unbeknownst to me, Vincent Kompany, already an established player at Manchester City, had wondered the same.
"It was a few years before that, I think 2003 or 2004," he told me and Julien Laurens when we sat down with him for an episode of "Gab and Juls Meets...".
"I was only a kid, maybe 17, but I talked about how we Belgians had an inferiority complex, maybe because we're a small country. But at the youth level at Anderlecht, we had such a strong team and we were beating everybody comfortably -- even Real Madrid. And then we'd break into the first team and all of a sudden, we couldn't compete."
And yet that generation of Belgian players, as a group, did compete. With Kompany as a sort of "big brother" figure, they held the top spot in the FIFA rankings from 2017 to 2021 and, since 2014, were never outside the top five. What did they have to show for it in terms of silverware? Three quarterfinal exits and a semifinal run in major tournaments. And now, as they open Qatar 2022 against Canada on Wednesday night, the question is whether that window of opportunity has closed.
At 36 years of age, Kompany is now the manager of Burnley, and they're top of England's second-flight in his first season in charge. He played his last game for Belgium in 2019, but it's clear his feelings for the "Red Devils" remain strong.
"We were number one in the world for six or seven years, the consistency was there," he says. "But it's a tournament and there's a draw and anything can happen. And it's fine margins. Look at what happened in 2018. We're in the group stage and we play England in the final game, and we know the losing team will have the easier pathway to the final. So what do we do? Of course, we win this game and all of a sudden, we have to get past Japan, Brazil and France."
Kompany says that finishing third at the last World Cup was still a fantastic result for Belgium, and he's right. Even the defeat to France in the semifinal, decided by Samuel Umtiti's goal, came with the slimmest of margins. Indeed, it's one of the the peculiarities of the World Cup. Verdicts come through, heroes are anointed, villains are decreed and massive carbon footprints generated in drawing conclusions. And yet, at most, a team will play seven games.
"It's nothing... seven games," says Kompany. "And a World Cup is unlike anything else. You have to peak at the right time. We were at our peak in 2018 against Brazil in the quarterfinal and we needed to be, because they were so good. And then the semifinal against France was down to set pieces... [France keeper] Hugo Lloris made a great save from Toby Alderweireld, and they score on a near post run off a corner kick. Those are margins. I love participating in World Cups and tournaments like that... I love it. But I never draw conclusions from them. It's pointless. The best team in the world [rarely] wins the World Cup."
It's part of the cruel appeal of this tournament. The club game rewards consistency of the sort his old manager, Pep Guardiola, put together at Manchester City, winning four of the past five Premier League titles. The World Cup rewards moments, peaks and happenstance. That might be why he's still bullish on Belgium.
"I think they can [win it]," he says. "Other teams may be favorite as well, but they can win it in the same way Italy won it [in 2006]. With an experienced team, being disciplined and organized and having the advantage of having been together for a long time. And having match-winners and game changers in the team. You need that in tournaments."
You can see where he's coming from. There is plenty of experience, from Thibaut Courtois between the posts, to Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen at the back, to Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne and Yannick Carrasco in midfield, to Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard further up the pitch.
Sure, Hazard has been injured and had a difficult 18 months, while Lukaku is straining to return to fitness and might not be back for the group stage. And yes, experience is another word for "old" in the parlance of football. But age is more of a problem over a long, fixture-congested club season. Over a few weeks in December, even someone in his mid-thirties can gut it out. And while Hazard and Lukaku remain question marks, who's to say this isn't when it all randomly comes together, even briefly?
Plus, there's no arguing when it comes to match-winners; perhaps only France and Brazil are more blessed in that department. Belgium have both a shutdown keeper in Courtois and, arguably, the best attacking midfielder in the world in De Bruyne. They only need to click at the right time in a couple of the right knockout games... and who knows?
Kompany: Kevin De Bruyne directs the Belgium orchestra
Former Belgium captain Vincent Kompany joins the Gab & Juls Show and outlines why Kevin De Bruyne is so important for his country.
Having played with him for years with Belgium and Manchester City, Kompany positively beams when discussing De Bruyne.
"He's got this thing about him, which is very Belgian... he's humble," Kompany says. "That makes him likeable. But beyond that, it's just his football brain. You give him a plan and he will be directing the orchestra. He sees the plan, he closes his eyes and he sees it. He receives the ball, and he knows already what he's going to do and he executes it. All you have to is just run and be ready to receive the ball because it will be there. And that's very special.
"There's a big part of his game that you don't see. And it's maybe even more special than what he does when he has the ball at his feet."
Get Kompany talking about Belgium and he radiates excitement. You suspect that if he could, he'd love to be a part of it even now. Heck, he knows that Hazard hasn't been Hazard for nearly three years, and yet he can't help but sing his praises: "Kevin executes the plan, Eden doesn't need a plan, he is the plan, put him on the pitch and let him go!" Kompany is a grown-up now, a manager and ex-pro, but his anticipation and enthusiasm is that of a fan.
His day job is in Burnley these days, but part of his heart and soul is with his band of little brothers in Qatar. The Golden Generation have yet to win a trophy. Yes, they're bruised and battered and maybe could use a polish. But guess what? Gold doesn't rust. And as Kompany knows, in a World Cup, you only need to shine and shimmer for a couple of moments, as long as they are the right moments.