AL RAYYAN, Qatar — After the final whistle of a scoreless draw between the golden generations of football teams from two small European nations, the end has come for one of them. The eras of football only last for a limited time, with injuries and age catching up with everyone.
The tie was enough for Croatia to qualify for the round of 16 of this World Cup. Its players, many of whom were on the pitch when Croatia lost the 2018 World Cup final in Russia, will be able to play at least one more game in Qatar. They hugged and slapped each other after Thursday’s final whistle at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
But Belgium – a side that have reached new heights and spent several years at the top of the world rankings and finished third in 2018 – will return home. Once thought to be in contention for a World Cup title at a time when they could call on some of the best players in the world in multiple positions – goalkeeper, midfielder, striker – Belgium have never won a major international title , or even reached a final . Now, its stars are unlikely to play together again. Most of Belgium’s top players are in their early to mid thirties. This trip to Qatar was their last collective blow.
“A huge disappointment for us,” said Belgian coach Roberto Martínez.
After the match, Romelu Lukaku, 29, Belgium’s top career scorer, was moved to tears and consoled by his teammates on the sidelines. Midfielder Axel Witsel, 33, collapsed to the ground, as did 33-year-old defender Toby Alderweireld. Kevin De Bruyne, 31, a midfielder widely regarded as one of the best players in the world, walked around saying goodbye.
Martínez, Belgium coach since 2016, later admitted he hugged everyone because it was to be his last game as team leader.
“It’s not every year there’s a tournament,” Alderweireld said. “We will see what everyone does. It’s too close to the last game to decide. Everyone goes home now and moves to their club and has time to decide what they are going to do. It hurts.”
Morocco, on the other hand, was filled with joy. With a 2-1 victory over Canada on Thursday, they won Group F. After a 2018 World Cup in which none of the five African qualifiers qualified for the knockout stage, Morocco joined the Senegal into the Round of 16 in Qatar – with Ghana in position to join on Friday. Morocco also represented the hope of a different region: it is the only Arab country remaining in the first World Cup organized in the Middle East.
Morocco were the only team in the group to win twice, toppling Canada and upsetting Belgium, 2-0, a result that led to riots in Brussels. By winning the group, Morocco secured a meeting on Tuesday with Spain, who finished second in Group E after losing to Japan. Croatia will face Japan on Monday.
“If we play at this level, we don’t fear anyone,” Zlatko Dalic, Croatia coach since 2017, said through an interpreter.
Belgium, who needed to win to qualify, played their best game of the tournament on Thursday. But Croatia, led by 37-year-old captain Luka Modric and other World Cup veterans like Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic, held firm as the teams traded attacks and counterattacks .
The game will perhaps be best remembered for Lukaku’s handful of second-half close-range chances that looked like surefire goals but somehow missed. Unable to play a full match as he is still not fully recovered from a recent hamstring injury, Lukaku started the second half and quickly made his presence felt.
In the 61st minute, his rebound shot hit the right goal post. A minute later he headed a ball from De Bruyne just over the crossbar. In the 87th minute, after sending a ball just inches to the right of the goal from close range, he leaned over in disbelief, hands on his knees. Three minutes later, Lukaku dropped a ball from his chest towards goal just yards out to have it saved by Dominik Livakovic.
“We’re very disappointed,” Alderweireld said, later adding, “With a bit more luck and quality we would have scored and been in the next round.”
Luck and quality never came. Throughout the tournament, there were reports of discord within the team, which Martínez dismissed. They started when De Bruyne made waves saying this team was too old to win the title. The comments appeared to confuse some of his team-mates, such as 35-year-old defender Jan Vertonghen, who told reporters after Belgium’s loss to Morocco on Sunday that the team had “attacked badly because we are also too old in front “.
After Thursday’s match, midfielder Timothy Castagne said the team’s efforts against Croatia showed his teammates were united. But he admitted a “big change” was coming for the team, starting with Martínez.
“Hopefully we can use this failure and not let it happen again,” Castagne, 26, said, later adding of this golden generation for Belgium: “They did great things for the nation. Now we have to try to do it again.
Martínez said he decided before the tournament that it would be all for him as Belgium coach once his contract expired after this World Cup. He talked about the players’ achievements and noted how proud he was of them. He held back his emotions when he said he couldn’t continue as a coach.
“We weren’t the team we are,” he said when explaining Belgium’s struggles. “We listened to the noise from outside. We were afraid of losing a game.
As a chapter of Belgian football came to an end, Martínez said “true fans” would appreciate what this group had done and the joy it had brought. Croatian fans, meanwhile, will be able to continue watching and enjoying their team – for now.
“We will stay here together one more game,” said defender Josip Juranovic. “Maybe three. We will see.”
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