Doku leads new Belgium generation in Euro 2024 as Ukraine’s young players aim to bring hope

Age is a factor in Group E at the European Championship as Belgium grapples with how to move on from its ‘Golden Generation’ and Ukraine looks to its young players for inspiration during wartime.

Just getting to Euro 2024 has been a victory for the Ukrainians, more than two years after Russia’s invasion. Ukraine neighbors Romania and Slovakia are also in the group.

Here is a closer look at Group E:


The Golden Generation is over. Can a new generation step up? Two years ago, Kevin De Bruyne plunged Belgium’s World Cup plans into turmoil when he claimed the team was “too old” to win in an interview with The Guardian. That Belgian squad had 10 players aged over 30 and the highest average age of any European team at the tournament. A group-stage exit and just one goal at the World Cup put Belgium on course for a rebuild. Coach Domenico Tedesco has overseen a tactical shakeup and a gradual exit for some of the oldest players. Experienced leaders do remain, not least the 37-year-old Jan Vertonghen in defense, the 32-year-old De Bruyne himself in midfield and 31-year-old Romelu Lukaku up front. Still, younger players like De Bruyne’s Manchester City teammate Jérémy Doku are bringing fresh energy to the team. Qualifying unbeaten with just four goals conceded from eight games was a welcome sign of getting back on track under Tedesco.


Many of Ukraine’s players come from the national league, where games are sometimes interrupted to let those on the field — there are no fans — head to air-raid shelters. Keeping the national team going is a symbol of resilience to fans at home. Two comeback wins in the playoffs to qualify for Euro 2024 showed plenty of grit. Players also believe they have a duty to spread the word about Ukraine internationally. “It’s not only about football now,” defender Illia Zabarnyi said in a recent interview. “For Ukrainian people, I think it’s more important.” Zabarnyi has played every minute of every game in the English Premier League this season for Bournemouth and is one of a group of exciting young Ukrainians who could make the difference at Euro 2024. Chelsea forward Mykhailo Mudryk has had a tough start to life in the Premier League but has tended to perform better internationally, while Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Heorhiy Sudakov is an up-and-coming talent who set up two goals against Iceland for Ukraine to qualify. Matching the run to the quarterfinals three years ago will be challenging but possible.


Slovakia might make more of an impact off the field than on it. The country’s populist prime minister Robert Fico is a strong opponent of military aid for Ukraine, and the teams play in Duesseldorf on June 21. It’s the third European Championship in a row for Slovakia. While Czechoslovakia won the title back in 1976, Slovakia’s best result since its split with the Czech Republic was getting to the last 16 in 2016 before a one-sided 3-0 loss to Germany. This will be the first time Slovakia has played at a major tournament without midfielder Marek Hamsik, whose retirement last year left a big hole in the squad. Results since then have been mixed, but there’s still plenty of experience in the squad, led from defense by captain Milan Skriniar of Paris Saint-Germain, along with two 37-year-olds, right back Peter Pekarik and midfielder Juraj Kucka.


The only other team in Group E besides Belgium to qualify unbeaten, Romania impressed by winning a group that also contained Switzerland and Israel. Still, Euro 2024 will test a squad sorely lacking in top-level experience. Tottenham defender Vlad Dragusin is the only member of the squad playing regularly for one of Europe’s top clubs this season — and even he played only nine Premier League games since signing in January. Goalkeeper Horatiu Moldovan is a backup at Atletico Madrid. There’s a connection to the glory days of Romanian soccer with midfielder Ianis Hagi, son of Gheorghe Hagi, who helped the team to the quarterfinals of the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2000.


AP soccer:

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