Friday, July 2, 2021. The Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany. The day a dream finally dies.
In a much-anticipated Euro football tournament quarterfinal, Belgium clashes with Italy. The Red Devils start cautiously, sitting back, perhaps reluctant to expose an aging defence. The plan doesn’t work. Instead, a young and surprisingly adventurous Italian squad scores twice, in the 31st and 44th minute, to lead 2-0.
Luckily, a controversial penalty award in first half added time allows Belgium back within a goal. Hopes of a comeback remain alive.
Yet, it is not to be. Just after the hour, a thrilling counterattack and dangerous low cross seem certain to produce the equalizer. However, wide open at the far post, star forward Romelu Lukaku slightly mistimes his contact, the ball ricocheting of an Italian defender and out for a corner kick.
A final, gallant surge also fails to produce a goal. The score line remains 2-1 to Italy. Once again Belgium underachieves at a major tournament.
It is not supposed to end like this. Indeed, for the past decade, the Belgian team features undeniably impressive talent. It reaches the top of the world rankings in 2015 and boasts generational superstars such as the Hazards, Lukaku, de Bruyne, Courtois, Tielemans and Kompany. Its possession based, positive, attacking football gains deserved plaudits and a rabid fan base.
There is a commendable bronze medal finish at the 2018 World Cup, which includes a brilliant performance in the quarterfinal vs Brazil. Unfortunately, the side’s results can otherwise only be viewed as a major disappointment, given a previous quarterfinal defeat to Argentina in the 2014 World Cup and elimination to a scrappy Welsh outfit in the 2016 Euros.
Indeed, meaningful accomplishments at important international events prove elusive. Quite simply, an exceptionally gifted group of players collectively never reach the anticipated and expected levels of success.
Saturday, July 3, 2021. In a parallel universe nine time zones and some 5200 miles away, a similar scenario plays out. Six countries converge in Victoria, BC. A Men’s basketball tournament, the winner to gain a coveted berth to the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, enters the knockout phase.
A huge opportunity awaits Canada. As with Belgium at the Euros, a roster choc a bloc with serious top end talent has another chance to likewise undo a decade of frustration, heartache and despair. Of faltering at the 2013 FIBA Americas event. Of a 2015 last second, one-point shocker to unfancied Venezuela, which costs the team an automatic slot at the Rio Olympics. Of defeat to France in a last chance 2016 qualifier. Finally, of the failure to advance from an expanded 2019 World Cup competition in China.
Nonetheless, a long-awaited signature triumph again looms on the horizon. Even allowing for the many excellent opposing teams drawn from all around the globe, Canada, this time playing at home, must be considered favourites. Though missing a handful of injured or out of contract NBA players, the team seems ready to grab the spotlight. With the country again prepared to believe in the possibility, perhaps probability, of an Olympic berth, the first since 2000. Two wins required.
First up is the Czech Republic. A crafty, veteran dominated squad, full of international experience, it has not shown much in pool play. In contrast, Canada is playing at a high level, led by Andrew Wiggins, RJ Barrett, Nickeil Walker-Alexander and Lu Dort. On paper at least, by a large degree, far quicker, more athletic and better skilled.
Unfortunately, games are not played on paper. The Czechs, loose and confident, ride hot outside shooting to an early lead. By way of contrast, Canada struggles mightily from behind the arc. Misses free throws. Lacks an inside presence. Is down 52-44 at half time.
A real sense of unease permeates the Save On Arena. The Czechs are much better than advertised and won’t go away.
The end game beggars belief. 44 seconds remain, Canada down 9 points and on the ropes. Stunningly, a combination of sheer desperation, a withering full court press, some shaky Czech decision making and, finally, some successful three-point bombs, sees the hosts force overtime. 94-94.
The crowd erupts, its joy heightened further when Canada registers the first five points of the extra session. Victory so close one can literally taste it.
But it is not to be. Remarkably, the Czechs regain their equilibrium. Draw level. Star guard Tomas Satoransky then hits an improbable, pressured bank shot with 2 seconds to play. Canada rims out its last attempt to a deathly silence.
Czech Republic 103, Canada 101. Olympic hopes are dashed.
Looking ahead, perhaps it is not all doom and gloom, even though it feels that way.
Inevitably, Belgium football will make necessary changes. A revamped squad will not have to wait long for its next opportunity. The 2022 World Cup, set for Qatar, is quite literally just around the corner.
Yet, its Golden Generation will remain forever unfulfilled, tormented by the past and the “what ifs.”
For Canada hoops, it is back to the drawing board. Time to build once again. A long and treacherous road to Paris and the 2024 Olympics will start soon enough. Qualifying windows begin in a few months, the cycle to eventually include a 2023 World championship in Japan and the Philippines. While a young and talented core hopefully remains in place, an ever-changing roster will be required to meet all the various demands and competitions.
Still, the fact remains it has been Canada’s elite players, also a much trumpeted Golden Generation, who have so far failed to get the job done. As with Belgium, perhaps they were doomed to frustration and futility the day they were saddled with the moniker.
It is said that pure gold is always shiny. Alas, like most other things, when confronted by deep rooted dreams and desires, when under maximum pressure, when dealing with crushing disappointment, it can also tarnish, smudge and lose its lustre.