Slovakia ride their luck and VAR to stun Belgium

June 17 – The most unwanted label in football has to be the ‘Golden Generation’ – just ask England circa 2002-06. At Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank Park, Belgium’s ‘GG’ were keen to prove that the label, which has hung heavily around their necks since 2014, still had some luster left. 

It took their opponents, Slovakia, all of six minutes to take the shine off as they capitalised on a Romelu Lukaku miss, with Ivan Schranz scoring his fourth international goal after Lukas Haraslin’s fierce shot was palmed away by Belgium keeper Koen Casteels.

Schranz still had plenty of work to do, however, and he deftly curled his first-time volley into the far corner. The Belgian defence raised their arms in the hope that Schranz had strayed offside, but unfortunately for Dominic Tedesco’s ‘GG’, the odds weren’t in his team’s favour. 1-0 to Slovakia and it stayed that way to the end.

It is the biggest upset in European Championship finals history in terms of the ranking difference between the two side – Belgium are world ranked 3 and Slovenia 48.

Any side boasting the likes of Jeremy Doku, Kevin De Bruyne and Leandro Trossard will create chances, but it was Slovakian goalkeeper and Newcastle favourite Martin Dubravka who gave the Belgians their next big chance.

Koen Casteels of Belgium dives to save

His inability to clear the ball with any conviction left Trossard with an empty net to aim for from just outside the area. The Arsenal man found the target… if you’re aiming for row Z, sending his effort over the bar when it looked easier to score.

With these near misses, you would have thought Slovenia would start to think this was their day, but they seemed allergic to the grass in Belgium’s defensive half, rarely venturing there.

In the 40th minute, they finally found their courage and put together a fine move which culminated in a superb volley from striker Robert Bozenik which Casteels brilliantly parried away for a corner.

Two minutes later our old friend Lukaku, who has scored a staggering 85 goals in 115 international appearances, wasted another chance proving that his habit of disappearing at major tournaments hasn’t changed.

Jeremy Doku of Belgium failed to score

Whatever Tedesco said to his Red Devils at the break, they responded. Attack after attack followed, and Lukaku finally found the net from a yard out. His kisses to the crowd quickly turned to raspberries, however, as the hulking number nine was adjudged to have been offside.

There are times in football when you have a spell and when you have a spell you have to score. Incredibly, Belgium couldn’t follow this golden axiom as first Lukaku had another chance that hit the side-netting. Then second-half substitute Johan Bakayoko thought he’d found the equaliser, only for David Hancko to heroically clear his shot off the line.

As the spell of dominance came to an end, the world’s third-ranked team began to lose confidence and, more importantly, the most powerful substance in football: belief. De Bruyne, who owns the Premier League with Manchester City, began to look lost, alone and, dare I say it, disinterested, which only encouraged the 48th-ranked team with their own belief.

These Euros are the first to use new technology. It’s got nothing to do with faith and everything to do with fact. A microchip has been implanted in the match balls that can detect the slightest touch. Luis Openda, who had just come on for Daku, exploded down the left and whipped in a delicious cross which Lakaku gleefully headed home… 1-1 and game on!

Not so fast… VAR asked referee Umut Meler to take a look, and sure enough, the ball had brushed his fingers, leaving Openda and Lukaku crestfallen.

Slovenia had done it!

A first-half goal. A man-of-the-match performance from Dubravka, who played perhaps his greatest international game, and the minnows from Slovakia had blown open Group E and sent the first seismic shock through Euro 2024.

As for Belgium, the golden generation is gone and, like England, they’ll only have the memories of what could’ve been from a group of players who have graced the world stage with incomparable magic, unfortunately, just for their clubs.

Contact the writer of this story, Nick Webster, at moc.l1721239166labto1721239166ofdlr1721239166owedi1721239166sni@o1721239166fni1721239166