With the generation that was dubbed ”the golden one” by many was entering its prime, the Belgium Football Federation had a big decision to make. At the UEFA EURO 2016, Belgium were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Wales, after a 3-1 loss, prompting the sacking of coach Marc Wilmots.
Enter Roberto Martinez, who was handpicked by the Belgian FA, thanks to his excellent results at Swansea and Everton in the Premier League, with his possession style of football being tailor-made to suit Belgium and its talented generation.
Six years later, after a bronze medal at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, an elimination in the quarter-finals against future winners Italy at the UEFA EURO 2020 and a failure to get out of the group phase at Qatar 2022, Martinez’s reign ended and his legacy is interesting to analyse.
While the team was star-studded and entering its prime in 2016, with stars like Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku being the cream of the crop, six years later, Hazard is only an afterthought at club level in Real Madrid, while Lukaku has known a turbulent few years, changing teams five times in the last six years, with plenty of injuries hampering his potential in this period.
“That was my last game with the national team and it’s emotional as you can imagine. It was going to be the end whether we were world champions or out in the group stage. It has nothing to do with being eliminated at this stage. This is the time for me to accept that this day is the last game,” said a truly disappointed Martinez after the match.
But the Spanish manager, who was sounded out by many club teams in the past years, being linked with Barcelona, Manchester United or Chelsea, was surely left disappointed by what will be a black mark on his superb resume.
Belgium started the group phase at Qatar with a 1-0 win against Canada, in what was an efficient, albeit inconclusive game. A loss against Morocco, 0-2, was the proverbial nail in the coffin, while a plethora of misses from Lukaku, four clear cut chances that did not go in, condemned Belgium to a 0-0 stalemate against Croatia.
With four points in three matches, Belgium finished third and the swansong of its golden generation left them in no man’s land. Defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are now 33 and 35 years old respectively.
Axel Witsel is 33, Dries Mertens is 35 and Hazard, despite being only 31 years old, has totally lost his shine and passion for football, after featuring only 72 times in four seasons for Real Madrid, upon his €100 million transfer, the most expensive player in history for the Spanish giants.
“I took the decision just before the World Cup. I always work in the long term. I believe the long-term projects need to be long term and they need to be set in advance. As you can imagine, since 2018 I have had many opportunities to leave and take jobs at club level. I always wanted to be loyal, I always wanted to finish the job and now I don’t resign, this is the end of my contract. This was always the plan,” said Martinez.
Belgium are undoubtedly no strangers to disappointment at the highest level. They finished fourth at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, with an excellent team, but they never broke into the quarter-finals of the tournament until 2014.
Two consecutive failures to qualify, in 2006 and 2010, and only one win in the final tournament between 1994 and 2006 prompted a complete overhaul of the youth system, which started to yield excellent players. Their fans went mad in 2018, when Belgium finally finished third, their best-ever result, with the players greeted as world champions in Bruxelles.
But an aging group, with clear divisions between the players, had little to show at Qatar 2022, their swansong and last dance. For the game against Croatia, only three players were aged below 29 years old and Martinez could not refresh his squad, deciding to stick his guns to the players that served him the best in his six-years tenure. Sure, Belgium have been the number one team in the FIFA Rankings for almost four years and entered every tournament as favourites. But trophy-wise and performance-wise, they disappointed more than bringing home good results.
So what really went wrong here? The causes have been discussed beforehand, but according to Martinez, it is not about this elimination, it is about the legacy this team will provide for the future.
“There is no doubt. They won the bronze medal in 2018, for four years they were No 1 in the world, 21 of them have their [Uefa] A licences, which means they will be coaching the next generation for the next 20 years. And in this time we have built a state-of-the-art training facility. They haven’t won a tournament but leaving a legacy is more important than winning a tournament,” concluded the coach.