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World Cup

Belgium's Golden Generation?

Enzo Scifo (in red, centre) was part of the original Belgium golden generation, pictured here on their way to beating the Soviet Union in the round of 16 at the 1986 World Cup.

Think of the 1986 Belgium team. The chances are that one image will spring to mind: Of five of them assembled, all ready to confront Diego Maradona when there isn't another Argentine in sight.

Not in their homeland, however. There they see local equivalents of James Stewart in "It's A Wonderful Life." For others, it is an annual date with Steve McQueen and "The Great Escape."

"Belgium's 1986 team is like the Christmas movie that they bring out every single year," a typically eloquent Vincent Kompany told the Telegraph four weeks ago. "That World Cup is something we get to see and hear about all the time."

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Kompany captains his country's finest group of players since 1980s but the national heroes were Belgium's original golden generation: the prolific skipper Jan Ceulemans, the prodigy Enzo Scifo, the veterans Jean-Marie Pfaff and Eric Gerets and the seemingly endless array of Van der Elsts.

They were the original Belgian golden generation, the side who finished fourth in Mexico. Kompany and company are their modern-day counterparts; apart from the old-timer Daniel van Buyton, all were born in the decade from 1985 to 1995.

It is all the more remarkable considering the fallow period that followed Scifo's birth in 1966. Now Belgium are one game away from reaching the quarterfinals, something only the class of 1986 have done. Yet others are nonplussed. Predictions of greatness have abounded in recent years but this team has produced three rather prosaic performances, benefiting from being in arguably the weakest group. They are yet to be truly tested. There are increasing numbers of skeptics. It is a natural antidote to the hype, especially as other so-called golden generations have underachieved.

The Ivory Coast exited in anti-climax meaning that Didier Drogba, Didier Zokora and the Toure brothers have neither an African Cup of Nations win nor a place in the World Cup's knockout stages to show for their abundant ability. Rather more predictably, England disappointed -- even if only Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard remain from the era of touted talents.

If either plays on into Euro 2016, 20 years after Gary Neville and Sol Campbell were junior members of England's 1996 squad, it will merely confirm that a generation's greatest achievement was longevity.

Somewhere between 2002 and 2008 -- when, in a feat of staggering incompetence, they didn't even qualify for a European Championships -- England ought to have had a semifinal appearance to reflect their considerable gifts.

Yet the use of the word "golden" fosters higher expectations. In reality, Portugal's greatest group proved a silver-and-bronze generation and while they can lament Greece's unexpected win in the Euro 2004 final, the record of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes and Fernando Couto is rather better than those of most of their predecessors or successors.

And this is where the phrase can be deceptive. It is all relative and the relevant comparisons are with earlier generations in their country, not their contemporaries across the world. Belgian football was at the lowest of ebbs before the current crop emerged. Australia's golden generation was the team that reached the last 16 of the World Cup in 2006; Bosnia's is the side that qualified for the tournament for the first time. Long before the expression was coined, Hungary's golden generation was their group in the 1950s, North Korea's the team of 1966, Poland's the side of the 1970s. Each stands out in their nation's history.

Some, indeed, are now spread across redrawn borders. As Portugal's was, golden generations are often identified when they flourish at junior levels. Yugoslavia won the 1987 U20 World Cup and reached the final of the 1990 European U21 Championships. After an artificial creation of a country started splitting into its constituent parts, some of that squad helped Croatia finish third in the 1998 World Cup.

David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Michael Owen were part of England's much-vaunted golden generation but they failed to reach a single major semifinal.

It is one of football's great unanswered questions if, along with the various Serbian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, Macedonian and Bosnian talents of their era, that group could have become world champions or won the 1992 or 1996 European Championships. Belgium's best chance ought to come not in Brazil but in a continental contest.

By Euro 2016, their youthful attackers such as Eden Hazard, Adnan Januzaj, Romelu Lukaku and the injured Christian Benteke, should be better while their older defenders should not have entered into decline. Crucially there won't be any free-scoring South American No.10s to impede their progress.

And a World Cup that suggests Chile, Colombia and Costa Rica are also enjoying their own golden generations serves as proof how hard they are to win. France in 1998 and Spain 12 years later are among the comparatively few "golden generations" to be World Cup winners.

The competition is simply too formidable. Given the conveyor belt in Brazil, every generation has a golden sheen. Given their relentless ability to churn out results, the same may be said of Germany. Even in ages when there was a talent deficit, players as limited as Carsten Jancker still helped them reach a World Cup final.

Yet because of the feats of so many past German teams, such achievements are almost unexceptional. In Belgium, a smaller country without the same tradition of success, the class of 1986 remain untouchables.