Belgium saw their journey end at the 2022 FIFA World Cup after a drab goalless draw against Croatia saw them finish their Group E campaign in third place on four points. The Red Devils were faced with a new kind of headache, one that no member of their current squad or manager had ever faced in the past. They had been knocked out of the group stage of a major tournament for the first time in the 21st century. In what was predicted by many to be the final hurrah for their famed golden generation, they had fallen short spectacularly.
In the weeks leading up to the competition, the squad for the Belgium national team was announced. It included the captain Eden Hazard and striker Romelu Lukaku, two players who have in the last decade, been key members of the Red Devils set up. These players, however, are at a stage of their careers where their replacements should already be getting groomed.
In the build-up to the Mundial, Belgium looked like a shoddy imitation of the swaggering side that dominated world football for years. Their friendly defeat to Egypt was written off as a game not to be taken seriously, but it was a warning for the Red Devils, one which they did not heed.
Hazard was unplayable for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup and helped the Red Devils finish third. The forward has seen his career stagnate since his 2019 switch to Real Madrid. In Qatar, he played 60 minutes in each of the first two group games and was introduced off the bench with three minutes of normal time left against Croatia. He has struggled for form and fitness for three years but was relied upon as one of his country’s most decisive players in Qatar.
The Red Devils were with striker Romelu Lukaku, who has had a tumultuous 18 months since moving to Chelsea from Inter Milan. His country’s record goalscorer, Lukaku was bereft of form, fitness and confidence as was evident in his brief cameos against Morocco and Croatia. In the latter match, he missed a hatful of chances that would have sent his country through.
In the aftermath of their elimination, manager Roberto Martinez handed in his resignation. He managed to win a bronze medal with the Belgium national team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, giving them their best-ever finish in the tournament. With that being their only podium finish in his tenure, many would say the Spaniard underperformed with the quality of players at his disposal.
Martinez played a huge part in Belgium falling in the group stage in Qatar. Part of his failings came from a lack of ruthlessness in dealing with Hazard . Another was not identifying a midfield pairing that would provide the best protection for his ageing defence.
Belgium has now crashed out of the group stage of a major tournament for the first time in their sixth such tournament of the 21st century. The Red Devils were ranked as the best team in the world for about four years and are currently ranked second in the world. After their showing in Qatar, it is expected that they will drop in the rankings to match their new reality. With their performance in Qatar and the quality (or lack of it) of players coming through the national team set-up, it is clear that the Red Devils have ceased to be a footballing powerhouse.