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Romelu Lukaku punched the side of the dugout and was consoled as he sat with his shirt pulled over his head after the 0-0 draw with Croatia and it was clearly an outpouring of frustration for his role in Belgium’s early exit from the World Cup.
But perhaps it was also frustration at what feels like an untimely end of an era for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’.
Belgium’s failure is the latest disappointment for a talented set of players who have repeatedly underwhelmed when it really matters on the world stage.
Manager Roberto Martinez hugged his players individually at full-time in what he later confirmed was his “farewell” at the expiry of his contract.
During his six years in charge, Martinez has had a squad packed full of superstars such as Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne, Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois and on-loan Inter Milan striker Lukaku.
And yet they never reached a major final despite being ranked world number one from September 2018 to March 2022. Their highest finish was third at the World Cup in 2018.
Belgium’s starting XI had an average age of 31 years and 95 days against Croatia – the oldest for any side at a World Cup since 2010.
Is this the end of a golden era for Belgian football?
“No, you’ve got players like Amadou Onana and Jeremy Doku. The ‘golden generation’ is doing something to bring the next generation on,” said Martinez.
“It’s not necessarily what happens on the pitch. The legacy can be left in many ways. Now the standards need to carry on rising and the young players need to carry on this line.”
‘Time for a new era’
Belgium’s chance felt like it came in Russia four years ago.
After impressively beating Brazil in the quarter-finals, they lost to eventual world champions France in the last four, conceding the only goal from a corner after dominating possession.
It was progress from reaching the quarter-finals in 2014 and at the 2016 European Championship.
But time was starting to run out last year when Belgium again failed to go beyond the quarter-finals at the delayed Euro 2020 and they headed to Qatar with an ageing squad.
De Bruyne and Hazard are now both 31, while centre-back pairing Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld are 35 and 33 respectively.
Manchester City’s De Bruyne said earlier this week the squad was “too old” to seriously consider winning this World Cup and it led to reports of unrest within the squad.
But it is a view that is held by some Belgium fans.
Supporter Amanda Sharp told BBC Sport before the 0-0 draw with Croatia it was “the last chance to do something with these players”.
Her husband Gage said it was “time for a new era” as Martinez had “failed” to deliver with this talented set of players.
‘We would have seen real Belgium’
Despite failing to reach the knockout stages, Martinez said “there was no regrets” and Belgium can “leave with our heads held high”.
“We wanted to get through but I’m sure the other national teams wanted to get through and that’s the tournament,” he told BBC One.
“In the previous World Cup we won three games in the group stage, we wanted to go all the way.”
Belgium’s tournament never really got going in Qatar. They only won one of their three group matches and scored just once.
“The first few games we were fearful and not the team we are. We listened to noise from outside and felt responsibility. We played thinking we could lose and be out and that’s what cost us,” said Martinez.
“I felt if we had gone through then we would have seen the real Belgium.”
Former England midfielder Jermaine Jenas told BBC One “Belgium’s campaign as a whole hasn’t been good enough”.
He added: “There’s distraught players in that Belgium side but when they look at themselves in the mirror they’ll realise it just was not good enough and that is why they’re out.”
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