There is still next year’s World Cup in Qatar to come, but Belgium’s “golden generation” will know that elimination on Friday from the European Championship is another opportunity gone.
Belgium were among the favourites for the tournament, having spent more than 1,000 days at the head of the FIFA rankings. But after losing 2-1 to Italy in Friday’s quarter-final in Munich, they admitted they were second-best on the night.
“It was two very good teams in this knockout stage, and the margins went to them,” said Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, who is likely to stay on for a last tilt at glory next year.
Belgium have been threatening a first major tournament success since reaching the last four of the 2018 World Cup in Russia but are again left empty-handed, despite a run of 13 successive wins in Euros qualifying and tournament matches before Friday.
Their exit is another hammer blow for a team bursting with star talent but who had key components not at full fitness for the tournament – which proved their downfall.
Kevin De Bruyne came into the tournament with a double facial fracture and ended it playing with a ligament tear, although he still presented the biggest danger to the Italians on Friday.
Captain Eden Hazard sat out the game, as he has done much of Belgium’s matches over the last two years, and was also sorely missed. He had a hamstring strain.
And then Romelu Lukaku, who is Belgium’s leading scorer and one of the players of the tournament, squandered a seemingly unmissable opportunity at the far post in the second half when he hit the ball tamely against Leonardo Spinazzola rather than into the net. Had that gone in, Belgium would have been level and could have turned the outcome in their favour.
ANGRY AND DISAPPOINTED
“We had opportunities. After the break, possession was still in their favour, but we were better. Yes, there will be people angry and disappointed, but the supporters will have seen that we wanted to give everything,” said De Bruyne.
Martinez, whose contract goes through to Qatar, must consider some tough decisions when the World Cup qualifiers resume in September. Does he push on with an ageing squad for another year or look to refresh immediately, ending the international careers of players like Dries Mertens, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen?
There is some exciting talent emerging like midfielder Youri Tielemans and the teenager Jeremy Doku, whose speed and dribbling against Italy kept Belgian hopes of a fightback alive, but the coach is likely to stay loyal.
“The feelings are sadness and disappointment because I don’t feel like these players need to be out of this tournament. The players did everything they could to get as far as we could,” added Martinez.