As the clock wound down to 90 minutes in the Group F match between Croatia and Belgium, four minutes were added on by the fourth official. Even at a World Cup which has seen matches go on way beyond 100 minutes, those four minutes seemed too generous in a match that was a painful watch.
In the end, Croatia held on to draw 0-0 and relegated Belgium’s golden generation to a humiliating group stage exit. The No 2 ranked team in the Fifa’s men’s football charts faded away without so much as a whimper.
For the casual follower, the second-best team in the world and the third-placed team at the 2018 World Cup crashing out would seem a surprise. But even Belgium’s own players saw this coming from a long way away.
In an in-depth interview with The Guardian published before Belgium’s match against Morocco, Kevin De Bruyne dismissed talk of his side winning the World Cup.
In a refreshingly honest answer to being asked about Belgium’s chances in Qatar, De Bruyne said, “I think our chance was 2018,” the Manchester City midfielder said. “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.”
Though the comments were made before the World Cup got underway, the timing of the article’s publishing did not make things better. Belgium had just scraped past Canada in their opening match with captain Eden Hazard pointing out that despite having good attacking players, Belgium were not the strongest defensive unit.
“We had more chances to win four years ago, but we still have enough quality to win the World Cup,” he told EFE. “We have the best goalkeeper in the world, the best midfielder in the world, good strikers... a very complete group. Our defenders are not the fastest and they know that.”
After Morocco outclassed Belgium, Hazard and De Bruyne’s comments seemed prophetic. But that is not to say Belgium’s defence was to be solely blamed for the loss. If the defence has been slow and shaky, the attack has been disjointed and tame. And there is also where the rifts in the team began to appear.
Defender Jan Vertonghen ripped into his attacking counterparts after the Morocco loss. “There are a lot of things going through my head that I better not say, or at least not outside [the dressing] rooms. It’s very frustrating. The first game was not good, and we got away with it well. Not today. I don’t think we created any chances,” he said.
“I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front. We didn’t create enough chances,” he added.
Against Croatia, Belgium were sedentary for extended periods only shifting to third gear in the final quarter of the match. Romelu Lukaku, who had just about recovered from an injury, had loads of chances to win it for Belgium but had one of those days in front of goal where nothing went his way.
Even at their peak in 2018, Belgium weren’t really a balanced team with the lack of good wingbacks hampering them. In Qatar, not only did they struggle on the wings but also in the middle of the park. De Bruyne, too, did not impose himself like he normally does for his club Manchester City.
There was a distinct lack of mobility in the Belgian midfield which had seen them finish third in Russia. Funnily, for all the brickbats he has received in his career, Belgium could have done with someone like Marouane Fellaini with his tenacity and forceful presence in midfield.
The fallout from Belgium’s exit has already begun with Roberto Martinez announcing his decision to resign as Belgium manager. Whoever replaces him will likely need to conduct an overhaul of the squad with only De Bruyne and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois assured of their places in the side, being truly elite at what they do.
At its peak, Belgium’s golden generation was a joy to watch. Their fabulous comeback win over Japan in Russia as well as their wins over Brazil and England showcased the quality Belgium were blessed with. That they would fade away in such a manner is saddening. But then again, not everyone gets a fairty-tale ending.