ST PETERSBURG: As the end came nearer here at the Krestovsky Stadium on Tuesday night, there was a prevailing sense that for all its hype, this golden generation of Belgium players flatters to deceive.
Faced with a set of high-calibre opponents who that showed unnerving calm at snuffing them out, Belgium disintegrated. The cohesion was lost, the character nowhere to be seen.
On the eve of their semi-final against France, Belgium’s star midfielder Kevin De Bruyne spoke of how his side had deserved to be there, how they believed they were built to win the World Cup that they felt their time had come. After all, they had just knocked out Brazil — the overwhelming favourites when the global football spectacle began — in the quarter-finals.
Brazil, though, aren’t the Brazil of the past. It was a side, just like Belgium, that had shown signs of vulnerability. Belgium’s fast start blew them away. A fast start against France never materialized. In the end, their coach Roberto Martinez was left lamenting that “the first goal was scored by France”, De Bruyne that “one set piece made the difference”, goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois that “France played anti-football’” and Eden Hazard that he would prefer to “lose with this Belgium than win with this France”.
Belgium had just been given a reality check by a team that was much smarter with the resources it had. In a game spanning 90 minutes, Belgium only looked like they were final contenders in the opening 20 minutes. After that, and after falling behind early in the second half, they looked bereft of ideas against a team that had set up to play on the counterattack and played on it to devastating effect.
“These were two teams with very different roles,” said Martinez in the post-game press conference. “France wanted to exploit us through the pace of their forwards but credit to how they defended. It showed they gave us respect. I didn’t see France running away with the game, though. Then they scored the goal and we couldn’t reply and the margin got smaller and smaller.”
Early on, Martinez’s hopes and confidence would’ve gone up when Hazard twisted and turned and twice made shooting space from himself. One shot was headed away, the other wide. But he looked lively and so did Belgium. Once France got in the game, though, it was another story. From the wings, he moved into the centre, looking to find that moment of inspiration. There was only frustration. It was unfortunate there wasn’t a word of praise by him for a defence that rendered him impotent, just that he wasn’t impressed with their style of play.
Comments like those showed the pain France have inflicted on Belgium. This must have hurt the ego and their self-belief must surely have taken a hit.
“I expected France to be very compact, to emphasise the defence,” De Bruyne said. “Have I been annoyed by them? No, I play at Manchester City where teams play defensively against us 90 per cent of the time. One set-piece and that’s all. We should’ve won but didn’t manage to, although France were not better than us. We’re disappointed but when I look back, I can say I had a good tournament. I gave it all for the team.”
De Bruyne giving it all wasn’t enough. By the end of it all, he too looked flustered, dropping back into the centre circle in desperation to do provide that telling pass, start that decisive move. Striker Romelu Lukaku went missing in action. Just when Belgium needed their top stars to perform, they went for a stroll. In the second half, there was total disarray and the game opened up further for France who could’ve scored two or three more.
“It’s a pity that we lost to a team that played such anti-football,” was Courtois’ assessment. “It wasn’t good to see, they were certainly not better than us. They defend well, with power but that’s it.”
The narrative was similar for Vincent Kompany. “We have not lost to a team that is better than us but we have to congratulate them because stagnant phases are part of football, of a plan,” he said, a hint of irony even in praise. “There was no team better than us at this World Cup.”
It seemed that a false belief had been instilled in the Belgian minds that they were the best team in Russia.
“I’m disillusioned because we feel that we were the strongest team,” said defender Jan Verthongen.
Strongest teams usually end up winning it all. Belgium, however, have fallen when it has mattered the most. Here in Russia, against Wales at the Euro 2016, against Argentina at the World Cup four years ago in Russia. Now, having set their sights on winning the world title, Belgium have narrowed down their vision to lifting the continental title, at the Euro 2020.
“We need to look at the younger generations that are coming through,” said Martinez, who was hired two years ago. “I have my eyes set on Euro 2020 and Belgium football has great potential. We need to look forward.”
Belgium have indeed gone a step forward at this World Cup — from a quarter-final exit last time around to a semi-final exit this time.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2018