‘Golden generation’ may not be a curse for Belgium

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Golden generation should be a complimentary term. After all, it has the word “gold” in it. We only resuscitate our lust of precious metals when we’re trying to adorn something, by it our wrists, our loved ones, or in this case, a yet-to-win-anything soccer team. That’s why the label gets recycled and reused on any group of talented players who emerge together into a senior national team. Their sudden infusion for vitality should push a nation’s soccer to a new heights. Nobody remembers that most successful golden generations are ones that have had the label retroactively applied.

Of late, the moniker’s been a kiss of death, most notably to the Luis Figo-led Portugal sides of the mid-to-late 1990s. There’s received its most alarming wakeup call at the hands of the United States, a then-little accomplished soccer nation who managed to upset the next big thing at World Cup 2002. As Jonathan Wilson points out in today’s column at ESPN Star, Romania, England and Ivory Coast have also fallen victim to the same pressures that befell Portugal, expectations “that can make failure self-perpetuating.”

Wilson’s piece, however, is about a golden generation which may actually be coming good. Yesterday in Belgrade, Belgium scored a surprisingly lopsided 3-0 victory over Serbia in UEFA World Cup Qualifying. The three points pushed them to seven through three rounds, leaving the Red Devils tied on points with Croatia on top of Group A.

The result is a far cry from the depths Belgium has sunk to last year. Then the Belgians were completing a disappointing Euro 2012 qualifying cycle. Their failure to compete with Germany and Turkey bred doubts. Could the talent could be brought together? Their wealth of skill players across midfield seemed redundant. They lacked goal scoring, and the coach was having trouble devising a system that could get the most out of his best player.

With George Leekens gone, there is new hope Eden Hazard can be as dominant in the international game as he’s been for Lille and Chelsea. While he’s still 21 years old, Hazard has only two goals in 32 international appearances, form that (coupled with questions about his commitment) often left him out of Leekens’ starting XIs. After Leekens was replaced by Marc Wilmots in May, the new Belgium boss sought to “create a special role for Eden”.

Early returns have been discouraging. Hazard scored has second international goal in Wilmots’ debut, though he’s since failed to reappear on the scoresheet. In Belgrade, he was taken off early in the second half, a move Wilmots said “injected fresh blood into the team.” If Belgium is going to make a leap out of the Leekens-era, they may need to do so without the leadership of their best player.

The rest of Belgium’s Golden Generation will have to pick up the slack, one of the many reasons the Belgrade result was so encouraging. Christian Benteke, 21, opened the scoring the Serbia. His second international goal hints the Aston Villa-man can be the scorer the Devils so desperately need.. Fellow 21-year-old Kevin De Bruyne doubled their league, with relative veteran Kevin Mirallas, 25, scoring in second half stoppage time.

Although Hazard, Benteke, De Bruyne and 20-year-old goalkeeper Thibault Courtois are among the squad’s more notable players, they’re merely augmenting what is Belgium’s true golden generation. Of the 24 players Wilmots called in this break, 17 are between the ages of 23 and 26, a group that includes Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Whitsel, Moussa Dembele, and Steven Defour.

That’s the core of the team, a core that disappointed when they failed to qualify them for Poland-Ukraine. Now, with the 21-year-olds assuming starting roles on the team, there’s reason to think Belgium can improve. With that enviable collection of talent, expectations remain high, even if cynicism has grown. In a group with Serbia and Croatia, Belgium should still be expected to claim one of the top two spots, even if 2012’s qualifying tells us to be prepared for anything.

Those doubts – that cynicism – is why yesterday’s result is so big for the Belgians. They went on the road, beat a team that qualified for the 2012 World Cup, and got three goals. The won in a way that will force critics (and perhaps, themselves) to reassess their doubts. Christian Benteke may fill their greatest need, and with Hazard still struggling to be the threat he is at club level, there’s reason to think Belgium can improve still.

If there’s cause for caution, it’s less likely to be found in the Belgians’ talents than in the history of golden generations. As Brian Phillips dives into when speaking of England’s, there is a point in a golden generation’s ascendance where potential could possibly give way to actual, historic results. Then attention happens. Then celebrity happens. In the case of England, the stars of Gerrard, Lampard, Terry, Ferdinand and Cole may have heighted the golden generation curse. For other groups that don’t have to navigate the insatiable world of London tabloid drama, the professional distractions of success can take a toll. Players like Hazard, Kompany, and Vermaelen play for clubs who will place significant demands on their players.

Although a golden generation does provide a huge, simultaneous talent infusion, it also risks players going through the downs of their maturation processes at the same time. Most will sign professional contracts around the same time. Their first breakthroughs for club and country will fall in line, and as they spend their early-20s coming into their own, most will make their first big club move around the same time. Eight players from Beglium’s squad have changed teams within the last four months. Eight players have taken on similar distractions and risks.

Friday’s win provides a focal point – a way to see through the expectations, past failures, and distractions to a glimpse of what the Red Devils can become. After a 1-1 home draw against Croatia in the previous qualifier, the result gives Belgium reason to believe they’re still moving forward. They can still be golden.

“This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come,” Wilcots told FIFA.com. “[T]hey’re still young and can improve a lot. The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Benteke are only 20 years old and are not yet established regulars for their clubs. We have to be realistic and give them time.”

“We’ve managed to build a group of 25 players who are moving forward, but it’s going to be tough all the way to the end [of the qualifying competition] … we must stay humble and realise that it will all be decided in matches nine and ten. If we go through the play-offs, our experience as a team will be much better and so, too, will our chances of reaching Brazil.”

Fabinho admits interest in Manchester United

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If even a fraction of this summer’s transfer interest is real, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho has taken every precaution against his biggest 2017 enemy: scheduled congestion.

Mourinho was a regular critic of United’s schedule last season in the run-up to its UEFA Europa League title win over Ajax, and is building his roster up for the UEFA Champions League.

[ MORE: Saief completes USMNT switch ]

The manager already had plenty of attacking options, and has added Victor Lindelof to his stable of defenders while reportedly flirting with PSG’s Marquinhos, too. Defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic is also a reported target (as are half of the world’s elite footballers).

And now, a wry smile from Monaco’s Fabinho hints that Mourinho may be making progress with another target.

‘‘It’s a tempting invitation. … I would first talk to my agent, Monaco too, to decide everything right. But it’s a great club, sure enough I would think well about it.”

Fabinho played mostly right back in 2014-15 before splitting time between that position and defensive midfielder the following year and seeing most of his time at CDM last season. Mourinho has lavished praise and given a contract extension to right back Antonio Valencia and has Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick, and Paul Pogba at CDM (though the latter can certainly operate higher up the field).

Chinese clubs to pay 100% tax on foreign transfers

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The days of Chinese Super League sides spending eye-popping figures on a handful of international superstars are over — either that, or those figures are about to double — for now, at least.

[ MORE: Oscar given 8-game ban for petulant display in China ]

China’s Football Association announced Thursday that, effective immediately, any foreign player signed for a fee exceeding $6.63 million would be subject to a 100-percent tax on top of the fee paid to acquire the player. The tax will remain in effect until the end of China’s ongoing transfer window, July 14. The tax will also apply to Chinese players signed for a fee exceeding $3 million.

It’s Chinese authorities’ latest attempt to prevent big spending by CSL clubs, which has in every instance been detrimental to the development of young Chinese players making their way through the academy system. The taxed money will then be reinvested in “youth training, construction of public sporting facilities and scientific progress in football development,” according to a statement by the CFA.

Just last week, China was eliminated from contention to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Russia. The only time China has ever qualified for the World Cup was in 2002.

Young Englishman Oxford goes abroad, to Gladbach, on loan

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MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) Borussia Moenchengladbach has signed English central defender Reece Oxford on loan for the season from Premier League club West Ham.

Gladbach sporting director Max Eberl says “Oxford has gone through all the England youth teams and is one of the biggest defensive talents in Britain.”

The 18-year-old Oxford, who spent the second half of last season on loan at second-division club Reading, is Gladbach’s fifth arrival of the off-season.

Qatar stadium safety concerns again raised by death investigation

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An investigation into why a British man fell to his death on a building site for the 2022 Qatar soccer World Cup has raised concerns about stadium roof safety.

World Cup organizers on Thursday released partial findings of an assessment of the accident at the Khalifa International Stadium, but said the full report cannot be released while local authorities continue their own investigation. It is one of two work-related deaths detailed in Qatar’s latest welfare report on preparations for the 2022 soccer tournament, which currently involves 12,367 workers on eight construction sites.

The 40-year-old British man fell 39 meters in January after one end of the roof catwalk he was installing dropped and a safety rope snapped.

“During the course of the investigation, the team had raised concerns with the method of installation of the raised catwalk system,” the welfare report from Qatar’s World Cup organizers stated. “This required further investigation regarding the method itself and the supervision skills of the specialist contractor staff.”

It has led to “corrective and preventative actions” being implemented by the contractor, a joint venture between Belgian and Qatari firms, along with safety checks across all stadium sites, the report said.

“These included a review of all working-at-height activities across all SC projects, an enhanced process when reviewing specialist activities within construction sites, and a detailed review of all roof and gantry designs,” the Supreme Committee overseeing stadium projects added.

The British man is the only European working on Qatar stadiums to have died in a country relying on a low-paid migrant workforce from south Asia to prepare for the first World Cup in the Middle East. Six non-work related deaths have been announced by organizers, with most suffering from heart or breathing problems.

Hassan Al Thawadi, the supreme committee’s secretary general, said medical staff are trying to raise awareness of the “importance of healthy lifestyles” by evaluating diets and identifying health issues, including hypertension and diabetes. Cooling helmets have also been developed in an attempt to make it safer for workers on outdoor sites during the searing summer heat.

World Cup preparations have been dogged by concerns about the welfare of workers since the natural gas-rich Gulf nation won the FIFA vote in 2010. Mounting international pressure led to Qatar raising living standards and worker rights. Inspections led to three contractors being blacklisted and 14 entities “demobilized” from projects for failing to tackle welfare issues, the World Cup report reveals.

“There is still work to be done to ensure our workers’ welfare standards continue to have a tangible impact on the ground and we are comprehensive in our attempts to tackle the myriad of issues facing migrant workers across the SC program,” Khalid Al-Kubaisi, who oversees worker welfare at the Supreme Committee, said in a statement.

The report has been released as Qatar is gripped by a diplomatic crisis that has seen it isolated in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar earlier this month and blocked air, sea and land traffic over its support for Islamist groups and ties with Iran. Qatar denies the charges and says the allegations are politically motivated.