DOHA, Qatar — Back in 2010, I wrote a piece for The Times of London that no country could match the hugely gifted group of Belgian youth, then aged 16 to 22, wondering if they could win the World Cup in 2014 or 2018. an acclaimed Manchester City player, asked the same question.

“It was a few years before that, I think in 2003 or 2004,” he told me and Julien Laurens when we sat down to film the episode “Gab and Jules Dating…”.

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“I was just a kid, maybe I was 17, but I talked about how we Belgians had an inferiority complex, maybe because we are a small country. But at youth level at Anderlecht we had such a strong team and we beat everyone. comfortable – even Real Madrid. And then we broke into the first team and suddenly we couldn’t compete.”

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– Fixtures and features of the World Cup

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Yet this generation of Belgian players as a group did compete. With Kompany as a sort of “big brother”, they were ranked number one in the FIFA rankings from 2017 to 2021, and have never fallen out of the top five since 2014. What did they have to show for this in terms of silverware? Three quarter-finals and a semi-final run at 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, Kompany is now manager of Burnley and they are England’s top second division in its first season. He played his last match for Belgium in 2019, but it is clear that his feelings for the Red Devils remain strong.

“We were number one in the world for six or seven years and we were consistent,” he says. “But this is a tournament, and there is a draw, and anything can happen. And that’s a good difference. Look what happened in 2018. an easier path to the final. So what are we to do? Of course, we will win this game, and suddenly we have to beat Japan, Brazil and France.”

Kompany says third place at the last World Cup was still a fantastic result for Belgium, and he’s right. Even the defeat against France in the semi-finals, which was decided by a goal by Samuel Umtiti, came by a narrow margin. Indeed, this is one of the features of the World Cup. Verdicts are handed down, heroes are anointed, villains are announced, and conclusions form huge carbon footprints. And yet the maximum team will play seven games.

“Nothing…seven games,” Kompany says. “And the World Cup is like no other. You must reach the peak at the right time. We were at our peak in 2018 against Brazil in the quarter-finals and we had to be because they were so good. And then there was the semi-final against France. before the pieces… [France keeper] Hugo Lloris made a great save from Toby Alderweireld and they scored from the near post after a corner kick. This is margin. I love to participate in world championships and similar tournaments… I like it. But I never draw conclusions from them. It’s pointless. The best team in the world [rarely] wins the world championship.

That’s part of the brutal appeal of this tournament. Club play rewards the consistency his old manager Pep Guardiola has achieved at Manchester City, winning four of the last five Premier League titles. The World Cup rewards moments, peaks and chance. Perhaps that is why he remains optimistic about Belgium.

“I think they can [win it]he says. “Other teams can be favorites too, but they can win it just like Italy won it. [in 2006]. With an experienced team, disciplined and organized and with the advantage that we have been together for a long time. And to have in the team the winners of matches and turning points of the game. You need it in tournaments.”

You can see where it’s coming from. They have a lot of experience, from Thibaut Courtois between the posts to Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in defense, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne and Yannick Carrasco in midfield, and Dries Mertens, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard further down the field.

Of course, Hazard has been injured and has had a difficult 18 months while Lukaku struggles to get back in shape and may not make it back to the group stage. And yes, experience is synonymous with the word “old” in football language. But age is a big issue during the long, busy club season. In a few weeks in December, even a man in his thirties can gut him. And while Hazard and Lukaku remain in question, who’s to say they’re not when it all happens to be thrown together, even briefly?

Also, there is no controversy when it comes to match winners; perhaps only France and Brazil are more prosperous in this regard. Belgium has both goalkeeper Courtois and arguably the best attacking midfielder in the world, De Bruyne. All they have to do is click at the right time in a couple of proper knockout games… and who knows?

Having played with him for years for Belgium and Manchester City, Kompany smiles positively as he discusses De Bruyne.

“There’s something very Belgian about him… he’s humble,” says Kompany. “That makes him cute. But other than that, it’s just his football brain. You give him the plan and he will lead the orchestra. He sees the plan, closes his eyes and sees it. already knows what he is going to do and he does it. All you have to do is just run and be ready to receive the ball because it will be there. And it’s very special.

“There’s a lot of his game that you don’t see. And perhaps even more special than what he does when he has a ball at his feet.

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Get Kompany talking about Belgium and he radiates excitement. You suspect that if he could, he would like to be a part of it even now. Hell, he knows Hazard hasn’t been Hazard for nearly three years, and yet he can’t help but sing his praises: “Kevin is following the plan, Eden doesn’t need a plan, he is the plan, put him on the field and let him go!” Kompany is already an adult, a manager and a former professional, but his anticipation and enthusiasm is like that of a fan.

His main job is now in Burnley, but part of his heart and soul is with his group of younger brothers in Qatar. The Golden Generation has yet to win the trophy. Yes, they are bruised and scuffed, and maybe they could use a polish. But you know what? Gold doesn’t rust. And, as the Company knows, at the World Championships, you only need to shine and shimmer for a couple of moments, if those are the right moments.