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World Cup

Honest to a fault: De Bruyne both a victim and cause of Belgium's World Cup breakdown

12:00 PM GMT+4 01/12/2022
Kevin De Bruyne Belgium huddle 2022 World Cup
Few fans disagreed with the Manchester City star when he claimed the Golden Generation's time had passed, but some of his team-mates aren't impressed

Kevin De Bruyne was named Man of the Match in Belgium's highly fortuitous win over Canada. It was a farcical fan vote. And he was the first to admit it.

"I don't think I played a great game," a bemused De Bruyne told reporters. "I don't know why I got the trophy."

And that's the thing about De Bruyne. He's honest. Maybe to a fault.

It's been evident for some time now that Belgium are a fading force. The feeling is that the 'Golden Generation' has lost its lustre. So, the last thing Roberto Martinez needed was for his best player to add his voice to the chorus of critics.

In an interview with The Guardian last Saturday, De Bruyne was asked if Belgium could win the World Cup. His response? "No chance, we're too old."

It got worse. "I think our chance was 2018," he confessed. "We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders."

In an era in which so few footballers say anything remotely interesting, De Bruyne should be commended for his frankness. However, his comments, which came just a day before Belgium's shock 2-0 loss to Morocco, clearly didn't go over well with his team-mates.

Speaking immediately after the game, veteran defender Jan Vertonghen sarcastically stated, "I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front..."

Martinez did his best to defuse the bomb that De Bruyne had dropped on the squad, arguing that sometimes comments are taken out of context. He even tried to argue that maybe it was a clever attempt to play down Belgium's chances.

If it was a "double bluff", it backfired badly. Rather than lull Morocco into a false sense of security, it instead left Belgium looking like a squad in a state of disarray.

RTL even claimed that there had been an altercation between De Bruyne, Vertonghen and EdenHazard, who had also labelled the Belgian backline "not the fastest". Romelu Lukaku supposedly had to break it up.

Thibaut Courtois was quick to dismiss the veracity of the report, though, labelling it "lies".

"A situation was described [in that report] that doesn't exist," the goalkeeper insisted. "As a group, we need to avoid that negativity. Everything was clarified. Everyone has openly expressed their opinion. It's good that we had a group conversation. We said what we thought to each other. We have to be honest with each other and fight for each other on the pitch."

Interestingly, Martinez doesn't believe that his players have been guilty of a lack of effort, instead pointing to a bizarre lack of confidence in possession.

"I thought we played [against Morocco] with the fear of losing," he said. "Without the ball, we still work for each other, but when we have the ball, we don't stand out, we are not ourselves."

De Bruyne is the most glaring, and concerning, case in point.

He looks nothing like the player that has made the Premier League his playground over the past few years. He has no goals, no assists and just two successful dribbles to his name, while his pass accuracy is 71.43 percent.

There was disbelief in the stands during the Canada game when De Bruyne butchered a brilliant breakaway that he himself had sparked by failing to spot the supporting Youri Tielemans completely unmarked to his right, while he latter suffered the ignominy of being nutmegged by Stephen Eustaquio, which drew one of the loudest cheers of the night.

De Bruyne fared even worse against Morocco, creating just one chance, losing the ball a whopping 28 times and having zero touches in the opposition area.

A colossal improvement is required if Belgium are to have any chance of beating Croatia in their final fixture to seal a place in the last 16.

Martinez has tried to alleviate the pressure on De Bruyne by pointing out that it’s not just the City star who is struggling in Qatar. “We’ve not seen the best Belgium,” he argued. But we’re unlikely to see the best Belgium if we don’t see the best De Bruyne.

Furthermore, while the 31-year-old has more pressing concerns right now, it’s difficult not to ponder De Bruyne’s place in the pantheon of the game’s greatest players.

His status as a Premier League legend is beyond dispute. But he has yet to win a major European honour at club level, or a major trophy triumph with the most talented Belgium side of all time.

For example, on Thursday, he will go up against Luka Modric. Exceptionally gifted as De Bruyne obviously is, would anyone really put him in the same bracket as a midfield mastermind that has been utterly integral to five Champions League triumphs at club level, as well as Croatia's run to the final of the 2018 World Cup?

Even Vincent Kompany admitted before the tournament began that he feared his former team-mate might never claim the Ballon d’Or award that he feels his talent so richly deserves.

"If I was Kevin – or any player hoping to win it – I would get in there now. He needs to win it before [Erling] Haaland and [Kylian] Mbappe start," the Burnley boss quite correctly pointed out. "Because, for the next 15 years, it could be another Messi-Ronaldo scenario. The next couple of years is definitely the moment for Kevin to get involved and try to win it.

"Of course, it’s still a team effort to get to those closing stages, but De Bruyne is an important player for Belgium. He has been involved in the Ballon d’Or vote for a few years now and he can win it. He is at his peak. I have no doubt Kevin will be a key player in this tournament."

De Bruyne has obviously yet to make his mark in Qatar, but there is still time. The Croatia clash will decide Belgium's fate, and arguably De Bruyne's World Cup legacy.

Nothing less than a victory will suffice. The Golden Generation is never going to get another crack at this trophy and a first-round exit would tarnish both Belgium's reputation, and De Bruyne's. As he'd no doubt be the first to admit.