Roberto Martínez exits as dreams of golden generation end with whimper

<span>Photograph: Tolga Bozoğlu/EPA</span>
Photograph: Tolga Bozoğlu/EPA

Roberto Martínez embraced each and every one of his backroom staff, then did the same to every player before going over to applaud a small cluster of Belgium fans whose boos could be heard above the din of the stadium PA.

His six-year reign as head coach is over and so, despite his protestations to the contrary, are the World Cup dreams of a golden generation. They leave behind a diminished legacy.

From third at the World Cup in 2018 to third in their group in 2022, Belgium’s decline, anticipated by Kevin De Bruyne among many others, accelerated during a miserable time in Qatar. But for a series of misses from Romelu Lukaku the team ranked second in the world would have qualified from Group F at the expense of a more accomplished Croatia. It would have been a feat of escapology unworthy of their efforts.

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A tearful Lukaku collapsed into the arms of the coach Thierry Henry before punching out the Perspex on the side of the Belgium dugout after a second-half substitute appearance that defied belief. The Internazionale forward missed four gilt-edged chances and was denied by a superb last-ditch challenge by the masked Josko Gvardiol as Belgium belatedly rallied.

It was not enough and it was no consolation that talk of being too old to shape a World Cup was disproved by a 37-year-old. That was Luka Modric, the oldest, finest player on the pitch.

Related: Belgium crash out of World Cup as Lukaku’s misses let Croatia off hook

The sun has set on a trophyless generation that has given a clear sense here of growing tired of each other. A team trying to demonstrate unity in response to numerous allegations of fractures within the squad – from dressing-room bust-ups to star names not speaking to one another – had a strange way of showing unity.

They all put their left arms over the shoulders of the teammate to their left during the national anthem, apart from Thibaut Courtois and De Bruyne, who stood with arms by their sides as La Brabançonne was played. Collectively, there was little evidence until the closing stages of the match of fighting for a common cause, to preserve their place on the biggest stage.

The game is up for this gifted but ageing group. It had sounded that way even before they produced one more soporific display, with Martínez presenting his case for the defence of the golden generation on the eve of a must-win game against Croatia.

His argument started convincingly enough, with a reminder that this crop has achieved more than any previous incarnation of the Red Devils. “In 2016 we were not the golden generation,” he said. “The golden generation were the ones who reached the semi-finals in Mexico in 1986. Since then, this generation has become the golden generation of Belgian football.

Romelu Lukaku holds his head in his hands after missing a chance for Belgium against Croatia.
Romelu Lukaku missed several gilt-edged chances to put Belgium through. Photograph: Ricardo Mazalán/AP

“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.”

Sorry, what? That was all going so well until Martínez strayed into familiar BS territory with his final sentence. Finishing third at a World Cup, a nice training ground and a host of coaching qualifications is more important than winning the thing? Not sure the Argentinians who worship Diego Maradona like a deity see it that way.

Martínez was in the right place for talk of questionable legacies at least. Qatar, and by extension Fifa, has been big on sustainability at this World Cup, where only one of the eight stadiums will remain in its current form once the tournament is finished.

Lusail Stadium, the 89,000-capacity venue for the World Cup final, is being converted into shops, schools, sports facilities and health clinics. Another, made of 974 shipping containers, is being dismantled. The remaining five will have upper tiers removed and their capacities halved.

A sustainable legacy seems to be how you package it in Qatar. Martínez had talked up Belgium’s and for one bright, sustained period there was substance to his claims. But it is over now and, like the post-World Cup future for Qatar’s stadiums, the golden generation’s standing has been much reduced.