No soft centre in these Belgian delights
Long live the team! How wonderful it has been to witness the 2018 World Cup, and its emphasis on the collective rather than individual brilliance.
Ciao, Messi. Obrigado, Ronaldo. Roll on, Neymar.
We have seen dynasties fall, and we have seen great reputations wither into nothingness. This is the beautiful game in all its glory, where little-known or seldom celebrated players come to life as if they are possessed for a month.
Manchester United supporters have looked at Romelu Lukaku with fresh admiration, given the bulldozing manner that the big guy has toiled for his country. It means more this thing, more even than the weekly wages that they pile up for club.
This is for families, and patriotism, and a passionate furnace that can only be stoked every four years. It has been a wondrous sight to behold. For the likes of Belgium, whose golden generation has long had a question mark hanging over their ability to handle expectations, this World Cup has been a release.
To look at their squad is to observe some of the very finest players that the game currently has. The names roll of the tongue like Neymar after a pat on the back, but those same names have seldom stayed in tune.
Kudos, then, to Roberto Martinez, and his man-management style that has turned the Red Machine into a potent, counter-attacking weapon. In Lukaku, Eden Hazard, and the ginger genius that is Kevin de Bruyne, Martinez has found a trio capable of tearing defences to shreds.
What Belgium have done in their last three halves of football is show that there is considerable substance to their bountiful supply of swagger and style. They had to dig deep from 2-0 down to Japan. Here they go again, the world thought. The Belgian chocolates can’t stand the heat.
Lesser men may have gone the way of Germany, of Spain and of Argentina and Portugal - abruptly sent down the tournament trap-door. But to their eternal credit, Belgium dusted themselves off and found a way. That winning goal epitomised their team dynamic.
The brilliant Thibaut Courtois collected a corner, and didn’t just hack it upfield. He rolled it to the ginger talisman.
De Brainstrust, if you will. They trust him to make the right pass, because he does it every week for Manchester City. Lukaku dragged two defenders up the middle, and Hazard took another for a ride on the left. Thomas Meunier peeled to the right, and De Bruyne located him at the right time. Behind them, Nacer Chadli had sprinted 80 metres to get to the box.
Instinct. Hunger. Desire. Call it what you will. He was there, and that meant that Lukaku’s beautiful dummy was not for nil. It rolled perfectly into Chadli’s path, and his was the final dagger into Japan’s gallant body of work. It was ruthless.
A goal of such precision, such predatory instinct, and such venom, that Japan couldn’t even pray for an antidote. Belgium have been accused of not having their desire before. Not this time. Not this year.
World Cups are a carpe diem festival for footballers; a realisation by a chosen few that this is their moment in history. It might be a tournament too soon for England, while Russia’s run to the last eight breathed vodka-laced delirium into this party.
It’s when you look at Russia and their fans, giddy and disbelieving, that you remember how Bafana let down all of us in 2010. Oh, the eternal shame.
But back to Belgium. They want it, and they want it all for each other. The greatest star in the world is hopeless against a team that plays as one. That adage has long been proven. Belgium will face another might team on Tuesday night, but don’t bet against them.
That France-Belgium collision of culture really ought to be the final, but we can’t be too greedy. We have been feasted greedily over some delicious football fare over the last month. Enjoy the final week.