LILLE, France, (Reuters) - A talent-laden Belgian team again fell disappointingly short of expectation after being bundled out of the European Championship in a far from glittering performance from a supposedly golden generation.
Twice now the tantalizing prospect of a disparate nation of some 11 million people, starkly divided along language lines, uniting to produce a team of world beaters has turned sour and the taste after Friday’s 3-1 loss to Wales is decidedly bitter. With the heavyweight contenders for the title grouped into one side of the knockout draw, the path looked clear for Belgium to march into next week’s final with a squad, on paper at least, bristling with talent.
Captain Eden Hazard and fellow midfielder Kevin de Bruyne have proven capable of match-winning performances at club level, but failed to make any mark on the plucky Welsh, reduced to anonymity at times in the quarter-final in Lille.
“They played like goats. It’s shameful,” said Stephane Pauwels, one of the country’s leading sports commentators.
There had been a similarly frozen performance two years ago at the World Cup when Belgium were eliminated at the quarter-final stage by Argentina. They spluttered as opportunity beckoned.
Then, however, they were still regarded as a work in progress, with Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup in Russia seen as more realistic targets for the most exciting generation since the Red Devils reached the 1986 World Cup semi-finals.
After Brazil, the Belgians kept on course, rising to top place in the world rankings and qualifying comfortably for the tournament in France.
But there were cracks going into the Euros after a series of mediocre results in warm-up friendlies and public mud-slinging after losing to Italy in their opening group game.
Coach Marc Wilmots, whose tenure is now in serious doubt, moved to dampen the discord but it re-emerged after Friday’s loss, suggesting he might not be the right man to best galvanize the talent.
Not for the first time did goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois point a finger at Wilmots for tactical failings.
Courtois, Hazard, De Bruyne, Toby Alderweireld, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Axel Witsel should all still be in their prime in two years time at the World Cup in Russia. Belgium should qualify from a group in which Bosnia and Greece are their toughest opponents.
It would offer a third chance for this generation but Belgian soccer must now decide how best to coax a consistent level of performance from players who have so far under-achieved in national team colors. It is likely to be the last chance to deliver on an abundance of promise.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Ed Osmond)