Moscow: Belgium were acclaimed at celebrations in Brussels on Sunday with thousands turning out to hail the team but they will carry mixed feelings about their achievement at the World Cup.
Victory in Saturday’s third-place play-off over England in St Petersburg ensured a best-ever tournament return for the Belgians but they are likely to be long haunted by a nagging sense they might have done so much better.
The so-called ‘golden generation’ had sights firmly set on winning the World Cup and were well on course after proving their mental fortitude in a dramatic rally to win over Japan and then going toe-to-toe with Brazil and beating them in the quarter-final.
But a narrow semi-final defeat to France last Tuesday left them crestfallen, even though they admirably picked themselves up to easily beat England 2-0 in taking the bronze medal.
“I think if we had played the final we would have won the World Cup,” said centre back Vincent Kompany, who at 32 is unlikely to have another chance in Qatar in 2022.
“But third place is consolation for our supporters and a nice reward for us. We played seven matches here and won six of them.”
A total of 16 goals in Russia was also testament to their ability but, in the end, a team bristling with potentially tournament-winning talent were stymied in their semi-final by France’s superior tactics and got caught out at a corner to see their dreams slip away in a narrow 1-0 loss.
Players such as captain Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Thibault Courtois will likely be back in four years’ should Belgium qualify for the next World Cup, but other key elements such as Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertongen and Axel Witsel likely not.
“A lot has been said about this group of players. I think that we have seen at this World Cup that they did not rely on their talent alone,” said coach Roberto Martinez, who now faces much expectation for the European Championship in 2020.
“Talent can take you far but sometime not far enough and these players showed they wanted play as team.”
There Belgium are unlikely to be a much-changed team and so will be among the favourites to first qualify and then go on and win a first major title.
But while Euro 2020 carries major prestige, it is not the World Cup and Belgium will remain forever wandering what might have been had they taken their chances against France and not given away a soft goal.