The current Belgium side has for a while been touted as the latest in the line of 'golden generations' of football, and perhaps not without reason. The offspring of a brilliant blue-print laid out at the turn of the century, one which demanded a uniform formation and style practised all through the age level up to the national as well the club levels -- exported rich talent to the top leagues of Europe while bringing the national side back towards its long-gone glorious past. Before this World Cup, most pundits had touted them as dark horses while others went one step further to predict that they could go all the way.
Now that they are out of the tournament after a rather meek exit from the quarterfinals, it is safe to say that some of those expectations were probably a bit too premature. They certainly lived up to the tag of dark horses by going as far as the quarterfinals, winning all four of their matches on the way. But did they look anything like a golden generation? Not really.
The golden generations of football, whether they ultimately become successful or not, have a way of catching the imagination, be it through a collection of individual brilliances or with the style they bring in to their football or their ability to step it up against a superior side. The most recent successful generations of football -- namely the French side which started domination of football with the 1998 World Cup win and the Spanish dominance of the last six years, had a collection of talents, with one or two figureheads who could inspire them in crisis. Zinedine Zidane was there for the French whenever they needed inspiration; Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez provided the magic whenever Spain needed to lift their game.
The same probably cannot be said of this Belgian side. For all that progress made over the last decade Belgium needed late, late goals to get out of jail in the first four matches. But when they needed to up the ante a few notches, down a goal against a tactically and technically superior Argentina side, there was no Eden Hazard or Marouane Fellaini or Vincent Kompany to stand up and be counted. In fairness, Belgium looked, at best, like a work in progress and at worst a team which is much smaller than the sum of its parts. They will probably need more time and a leader, and more importantly, a seasoned tactician in the bench to turn them into a complete product.
Talking of seasoned tacticians, there is hard to find a better one in modern football than Louis van Gaal. The former Ajax and Barcelona boss took an unfancied Dutch side to Brazil, one that was already depleted by injuries to Kevin Strootman and Rafael Van der Vaart. But whatever players he had, he turned them into a well-functioning unit shorn of their egoistic demons, thriving on swift counterattacking football spearheaded by the pace and guile of Arjen Robben.
On Saturday against a sticky Costa Rica side, despite having enjoyed the lion's share of possession and enough chances to kill the game off in 90 minutes, Netherlands found themselves in a sticky situation, facing the prospect of overcoming the monstrous Keylor Navas in goal.
As the penalties loomed, the Dutch fans might have felt the impending horror of being knocked out in the same fashion for the fifth time. But Van Gaal had carefully kept his trump card for the opportune moment. On came Tim Krul of Newcastle United, to the shock of Jasper Cillessen, saved two penalty kicks and became the latest hero in a World Cup of goalkeepers.