The anger ran deep. Romelu Lukaku also missed the best chances in the game against Croatia. He failed either because of the strong goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic or because of his own incompetence. After the final whistle, the striker's frustration erupted. He stomped towards the substitutes' bench and banged his fist on a plexiglass pane. This fell out of the anchor because of the heavy impact, Lukaku left the lawn sour. It was his last appearance at the World Cup. Belgium was eliminated after 0-0. The team, which was considered the favorite for the title, only took third place behind the surprising group winners Morocco and Croatia.
Kevin de Bruyne also leaves the World Cup with Belgium. The Manchester City superstar appeared to have had a hunch ahead of the World Cup. Perhaps he just wanted to warn a bit when, in an interview conducted before the start of the World Cup and published after the Belgians' first game, he addressed the fundamental problem facing his team. "Our chance came in 2018," explained the playmaker. “Our team is getting older. Now we are just outsiders.”
Sentences that now accompany De Bruyne and Co. every day during the global title fights in Qatar. Because they herald the end of the golden generation, which has regularly delighted the industry at major tournaments for ten years - and which will now probably end without a title. Anyway, the shine is gone.
This was to be heard after the Belgians' arduous opening victory over Canada (1-0). A flattering success, as a result of which de Bruyne was also honored as the best player - which he found very strange and commented accordingly honestly: "I'm surprised that I'm sitting here. I played badly and adapted to the level of the entire team."
It was the start of some skirmishes that tell of the inner workings of a team that no longer seems to be a team. After a 2-0 loss to Morocco in the second group game, the frustration in the dressing room was so great that striker Eden Hazard and defender Jan Vertonghen shared such opinions that they ended up nose to nose and on the brink of a fight. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois had to separate the brawlers. Afterwards, Hazard tried to downplay the conflict, saying he would never mess with the 'bigger Vertonghen' after all. Hazard measures 1.75 meters, the defender 1.89.
The fact that the incidents ended up in the media within 24 hours does not reflect well on Belgium's selection in winter 2022, which is why they suspected a "mole" in the squad. In any case, Courtois complained very violently about "untruths" that had been spread via social media, but then threatened the alleged informant quite suspiciously: "If we know who it was, it was his last day at the Rode Duivels".
Like small-minded, quarreling and not like the true, well-known, red devils, they come to Qatar these days. They are all still there, the collection of world-class players: Courtois, De Bruyne, Hazard, Lukaku. But one searches in vain for collective unity, always a big plus in the ensemble of coach Roberto Martinez. "We're going through a difficult time," said captain Hazard ahead of the game against Croatia. "Maybe the toughest I know at the Rode Duivels."
Before Thursday's clash at Doha's Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the chances of a rapid improvement against the group's most difficult opponents were rather slim. In order not to fail in a World Cup preliminary round for the first time since 1998, Belgium needed a win. Or a point and a big defeat for Morocco in the parallel game against Canada.
The disarray in Belgium's team was then evident immediately after kick-off. After nine seconds, Ivan Perisic fired a dangerous ball at goal, which just missed. Belgium then tried to bring calm into the game: Axel Witsel set the pace in defensive midfield, with De Bruyne in front. It was the Manchester City man who initiated his team's best attack of the first half. He freed Dries Mertens, who then shot well over the Croatian goal (13'). Two minutes later, referee Anthony Taylor awarded a penalty kick (Yannick Carrasco to Andrej Kramaric), but took it back after Croatia's Dejan Lovren had been offside from the cross. It was goalless at the break.
Lukaku then came on for the Belgians in the second half for Mertens, and the mere presence of the centre-forward, who had been sidelined with muscle injuries for a long time, was profitable. It was Lukaku who missed the best chance of the entire game after an hour. After Carrasco got stuck in the Croatian defence, the ball came to the Inter Milan man, but he hit the inside of the post. Bad luck! As in the 87th minute, when Lukaku shot just wide. Or in the 90th, when he got a cross on his chest and managed the feat of not putting the ball in the goal from a few meters. An almost unbelievable action.
Otherwise, Belgium seemed strangely inhibited in front of 43,984 spectators. Almost as if they weren't upset after all the skirmishes that this World Cup is now ending. Because in the end there was only a 0:0. Not enough because Morocco won 2-1 against Canada in the parallel game. And so the bitter realization for the world-class team remains that at the end of the glorious time only third place at the 2018 World Cup jumped out - far too little given the potential of the team.
The first consequence was still in the evening. Coach Martinez immediately announced his resignation, but stated that he had planned to do so anyway. “Today was my last game as national coach. It's obviously very emotional," said the Spaniard. The 49-year-old went on to explain that he made the decision before the World Cup to retire after the tournament: "You can imagine that after third place in 2018 I had many offers, but I wanted to be loyal and fulfill my contract. Now our journey is over. But my decision has nothing to do with being eliminated in the preliminary round.”