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Did the shine completely come off Belgium’s golden generation?

Romelu Lukaku couldn’t help but cry after the final whistle blew for Belgium’s final group stage game at the 2022 World Cup. Belgium was knocked out of the FIFA World Cup on Thursday after failing to defeat Croatia in a must-win game, and he missed a handful of golden chances to send Belgium into the knockout rounds.

It’s not just Lukaku’s fault, though. The striker, who despite his missed chances remains Belgium’s all-time leading goalscorer, is not the reason Belgium brought an aging squad —with the joint highest median age — to the World Cup. Lukaku has been dealing with injury issues all season and hadn’t play at the World Cup prior to the Croatia game. If Lukaku had scored any of those games, that would have simply papered over the cracks that this iteration of Belgium has shown in Qatar.

Roberto Martinez has already left his post as the head coach of the Belgian national team. His contract was due to expire at the end of the year, and according to football insider Fabrizio Romano, Martinez was already planning on leaving his post before the tournament kicked off. After six years leading the country’s men’s national team, Belgium will look to hire a new manager that will bring fresh ideas and a new generation of players. It’s time for that change.

“I arrived with the clear idea of qualifying for the (2018) World Cup,” Martinez said, according to The Athletic. “Then we became so engaged with the project and won the bronze medal. I’m so proud of these players.

“It has been amazing. Six years where we’ve been able to do everything you want to do … (and) the team has played has given people real joy. But this is the time for me to accept (it is over).

“I don’t resign. It’s the end of my contract. Since 2018 I had many opportunities to leave and take jobs at club level, but I wanted to stay loyal.”

The 2014 World Cup was when this team returned to the international stage after wandering in the soccer wilderness. After eight years, Belgium has mostly been content to use the same group of players and has failed to bring in younger players to replace that group. Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Axel Witsel, Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Lukaku all started the first game that year against Algeria in 2014 and featured on this year’s roster, too. Dries Mertens was a substitute in Belgium’s first game in 2014, and he started against Croatia on Thursday; Lukaku is the youngest of those players at the age of 29. Their time as a supposed “Golden Generation” at the top level of international soccer is now over.

Courtois said it himself in a post-match interview. “You can’t call us a golden generation if you don’t win anything.”

De Bruyne said before the Morocco game that Belgium couldn’t win the World Cup because of their age. When players are coming out and saying that during the tournament, you have a problem. Where is the belief? Where is the hope?

Because Belgium just crashed out of the World Cup, of course everyone is going to say this generation failed to live up to the standards. But there were good times. We’ll always have the good times.

Belgium has a population of roughly 11 million people. This isn’t my favorite argument/statistic to throw out there, because Croatia, for example, has a population of 4 million people and they made it further than Belgium did in 2018. Croatia progressed on Thursday, while Belgium didn’t. However, it’s important to acknowledge that Belgium isn’t the largest country in terms of population.

Under Martinez, Belgium achieved some great things. The highlight of his tenure was Belgium’s run to the semifinal in the 2018 World Cup. Along the way, the Red Devils won all three group games and topped the group, came back in dramatic fashion against Japan from 2-0 to win 3-2 in the Round of 16, and defeated a Brazilian side that featured a 26-year-old Neymar in the quarterfinals. The game against France could have gone either way, but Les Bleus were ultimately the more talented and deeper squad.

Martinez should keep his head high. He has the best record of any manager than isn’t named Louis Nicolay, who only managed the team for a single game in 1957. His 52 wins, 11 draws and seven losses leave Martinez at the top of Belgium’s all time managerial list, even if the team never won anything besides third place at the 2018 World Cup.

Still, even with all that credit in the bank, the disappointment around Belgium’s 2022 World Cup campaign can’t be ignored.

The opener against Canada was perhaps the most shocking performance from Belgium in this World Cup. Canada’s young squad outshot Belgium 22-9 and finsished with an xG of 2.63 to Belgium’s .77. Belgium could barely keep the ball or find a pass to build out. Kevin de Bruyne, who is normally a world class player on a weekly basis for Manchester City, had one of the worst games of his career. Belgium did not deserve a win in that match.

Statistically, Morocco was a more even match up. Questionable positioning from Courtois left his near post open for Morocco to take advantage of on a free kick, and Belgium just couldn’t back into the game.

Belgium never got into high gear during this tournament, but one thing that can be said for certain is that Belgium should have at least scored against Croatia. I’m not going to bash Lukaku for what happened in the final match, but he should have scored. Despite the stats and eye test showing Belgium was outplayed by the Croations, he should have scored. Damnit, he should have scored.

That would have just papered over the cracks, as mentioned earlier. There’s a good chance that had Belgium made it to the next round, the Red Devils would have been blown out. There wasn’t a single performance that would make you think otherwise.

Belgium just didn’t look capable of reaching their previous heights under Martinez anymore. His tactics were always on the more cautious side, but the attacking talented Belgium has boasted over the last near decade meant that Belgium almost always at least scored.

The reports of infighting within the squad and Martinez’s public response to these claims didn’t help matters either. Courtois said these claims and reports were entirely false and didn’t act as a distraction, but it’s not a good look either way.

There are young Belgian talents on the horizon. Jeremy Doku and Charles de Ketelaere are the two standouts right now, and their time will come soon enough. For now though, the era that is ending is being mourned.

FIFA rankings mean nothing, and the current generation is out of time. Bring on the new kids.

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