“No chance. We’re too old,” Belgium’s star midfielder Kevin de Bruyne told the Guardian when asked if his country could win the World Cup.
Just a tad defeatist you might think for your best player to say, and Belgium almost felt determined to prove him right with a listless display in a 2-0 defeat to Morocco.
“Our chance was in 2018. We have a good team, but it’s ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they’re not at the level other players were in 2018,” De Bruyne said.
Is he right? Belgium have only the fifth oldest squad in the tournament at an average age of 27.8, although the older Brazil’s average age is brought up a lot by Dani Alves (39) and Thiago Silva (38).
The average age of Belgium’s starting line-up in both of their games so far has been 29.9, and they were outfought by a Morocco team with an average age of 27 and who started only two players over the age of 30.
Of those players, Belgium have some 30-plus-year-olds with a lot of mileage on the clock. Eden Hazard may only be 31 but it’s sad watching him struggle to beat a man after watching him torment defences week-to-week in the Premier League for many years, but maybe it is to be expected when the winger was playing 60 games a year from age 19.
Those who watched the dynamic Angel Di Maria (34) in the 2014 World Cup will wonder where that player is gone. Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani (both 35) are no longer the all-action dynamos they once were, while Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez (23) was pushed wide against South Korea.
Some old-timers like Olivier Giroud (36), Thiago Silva and the great Lionel Messi (35) have raged against the dying light of their international careers but in general, fortune has favoured the bravery of the managers that chose youth over experience at this World Cup so far.
Look no further than Luis Enrique’s Spain team, as the manager left Sergio Ramos (36), Thiago (31) at home, with Koke (30) on the bench, in favour of Pedri (20) and Gavi (18) as advanced midfielders in a 4-3-3, albeit with the experience of Sergio Busquets (34) behind them.
Gavi became the youngest World Cup scorer in Spain’s history against Costa Rica and Pedri has impressed with his magnificent ball retention. One player who certainly stood up to the Spanish threat, though, was Germany’s exceptionally talented Jamal Musiala (19), who has also been superb so far despite a tough start to the World Cup for the Germans.
Despite his critics, Gareth Southgate has trusted in Jude Bellingham (19) and Bukayo Saka (21) and they ran amok against Iran in the opening game, scoring three goals between them. While Messi understandably got the plaudits against Mexico, it was the substitution of Enzo Fernandez (21) for Argentina that changed the game and sealed the victory with a goal. Netherlands have relied on Cody Gakpo (23) for inspiration, while Ghana’s Mohammed Kudus’ (22) grandiose claim of being as good as Neymar does not seem so farfetched now.
Two of the favourites, France and Brazil, are looking to their blistering quick left-wingers to break the deadlock in games – PSG’s Kylian Mbappé (23) has carried the weight of France on his broad shoulders, while given Neymar’s injury Brazil are looking to Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jnr (22) for inspiration in attack. At the base of France’s midfield Aurélien Tchouaméni (22) has held his own stepping into the boots of injured Ngolo Kante in Didier Deschamps’ engine room.
Mbappé, who was born after “El Fenomeno” Ronaldo wowed the World Cup for Brazil in 1998, is similarly electric with the ball at his feet. “Kylian doesn’t speak, he’s not very talkative, but he’s like a steam train on the pitch and gets the crowd going,” French manager Deschamps said. “Opponents have to rethink their structure when coming up against Kylian.”
Mbappé scored and assisted against Australia and scored two goals against Denmark. He plays with the swagger of a man who knows now is his time and stage to shine, just like Pedri when he came up against the fearsome German midfield. The next generation is here.