Belgium's Golden Generation loses its luster
China Daily

Belgium's Thorgan Hazard and Youri Tielemans look dejected after the match as Belgium are eliminated from the World Cup at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan, Qatar, December 1, 2022. [Photo: Agencies]

So, nearly a week after the crushing disappointment of Wales crashing out of the World Cup (no, I'm still not over it), some perspective, at least, has been gained.

As the final round of group games reached their denouement, it became clear that Cymru was in good company, as Belgium, Denmark and Germany also found themselves dusting off their passports earlier than expected. As some Welsh wag on Twitter noted: "We thought we were so lucky to avoid Denmark and Belgium in the group, only to meet them on the plane home."

While I feel that, for my boys, getting there was an achievement in itself, I imagine that's not the case for the other three teams packing their suitcases.

Denmark, widely considered to be dark horses in Qatar, based on a largely unbeaten qualifying campaign, where they won eight games out of 10, limped home, bottom of Group D, with one point and one goal — startlingly familiar stats to Wales.

Germany booking a cab to the airport before the last 16 is possibly the biggest surprise, and will no doubt send similar shock waves through the European game as Italy failing to make it to Qatar at all. While people will point to the contentious Japanese goal against Spain that inevitably consigned the Germans to an early bath, it was ultimately the inability to convert chances in the opening fixture that did the most damage.

Germany will be angry and will endure a stern postmortem.

Belgium, though, will be disappointed. Again. And that's somehow worse.

Once more, the Belgians failed to deliver on the promise of their Golden Generation. With such a plethora of stars, and an envious depth of talent, it begs the question, why have they failed time and time again?

After reaching the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, narrowly losing to Argentina, it was believed that the talent-packed squad, which, in 2015, was No 1 in the world rankings, would storm to European Championship glory in 2016.

In one of the best nights of my life, they were convincingly sent packing, again in the quarters, by Wales, undone by a stunning effort from Hal Robson-Kanu.

In 2018, Belgium had a fingertip on the World Cup. It was so close the players could almost smell the polish, but they were left grasping at air after falling at the penultimate hurdle, losing the semifinal to eventual champion France. The drubbing handed out to England in the third-place playoff was of little consolation.

Another three years passed, and hope that the delayed Euro 2020 would bring the promised success was fomented on the back of yet another devastatingly clinical qualifying campaign. But, again, the same story unfolded. Like in Russia, Belgium fell foul to the team that would ultimately go on to glory. This time it was Italy, again in the quarterfinals.

So, amid tales of squad infighting and some very lackluster football in the first two games, Belgium took to the field on Thursday knowing that nothing but a win over Croatia would do. Watching the game, however, you wouldn't have thought so.

Croatia, great at holding the ball, but dire in the final third, held off a blunt and uninspiring Belgium — a team, I remind you, boasting Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku.

While there was more spark and a greater sense of urgency in the second half, as Croatia started to sit a little deeper, the normally devastating Lukaku wouldn't have been able to hit a cow's backside with a banjo. The Inter Milan forward missed three gloriously easy chances, and perhaps understandably, showed his frustration by putting a fist through the plexi-glass window of the dugout at the final whistle.

It was the first target he hit successfully all night.

But the blame doesn't lie with one player.

Over the past 10 years, Belgium has squandered the talents of Vincent Kompany, Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini and Eden Hazard, to name a few.

Is manager Roberto Martinez to blame? He has a great footballing philosophy and had the talent at his disposal to execute it. Did he cling on to some of the older players too long? Was leaving so many good youngsters sat on the bench his undoing?

Well, these are no longer questions for Martinez to ponder, but perhaps be haunted by, as he is the first casualty in the fallout from Belgium's premature exit.

Said youngsters will no doubt come to the fore when attention turns to Euro 2024, as we have probably seen the last of yet more Belgian players that promised so much, but ultimately proved that all that glitters is not golden.