Moscow: Belgium will be acclaimed at celebrations in Brussels Sunday with thousands expected to hail the team but they will carry mixed feelings about their achievement at the World Cup.
A 2-0 victory in Saturday’s third place play-off over England in St Petersburg ensured a best-ever tournament return for the Belgians but they are likely to be long haunted by a nagging sense they might have done so much better.
The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ had sights firmly set on winning the World Cup and were well on course after proving their mental fortitude in a dramatic come-from-behind win over Japan and then going toe-to-toe with Brazil and beating them in the quarterfinal.
But a narrow semifinal defeat to France last Tuesday left them crestfallen, even though they admirably picked themselves up to easily beat England, whom they had defeated 1-0 through an Adnan Januzaj strike in the final Group G game, in taking the bronze medal.
“I think if we had played the final we would have won the World Cup,” said centre-back Vincent Kompany, who at 32 is unlikely to have another chance in Qatar in 2022.
“But third place is consolation for our supporters and a nice reward for us. We played seven matches here and won six of them,” added the Manchester City defender.
A total of 16 goals in Russia was also testament to their ability but, in the end, a team bristling with potentially tournament-winning talents were stymied in their semifinal by France’s superior tactics and got caught out at a corner to see their dreams slip away in a narrow 0-1 defeat.
My players did not rely on their talent alone. Talent can take you far but sometime not far enough and these players showed they wanted to play as a team
Roberto Martinez / Belgium coach
Players such as captain Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will likely be back in four years’ should Belgium qualify for the next World Cup, but other key elements like Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen and Axel Witsel likely not.
“A lot has been said about this group of players. I think that we have seen at this World Cup that they did not rely on their talent alone,” said coach Roberto Martinez, who now faces much expectation for the European Championships in two years time – 2020.
Belgium are unlikely to be a much-changed team and so will be among the favourites to first qualify and then go on and win a first major title.
But while Euro 2020 carries major prestige, it is not the World Cup and Belgium will remain forever wandering what might have been had they taken their chances against France and not given away a soft goal.