There are hearts breaking across Belgium tonight after the second-ranked nation in the world according to FIFA crashed out of the 2022 World Cup during the group stage for the first time since 1998 after De Rode Duivels failed to emerge from Group F after a 0-0 draw against Croatia.
Many will look to Romelu Lukaku and the plethora of chances that the Inter Milan striker failed to convert during his substitute appearance at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, but given the immense talent that Belgium has been privy to since 2016, the blame surely must fall on Roberto Martinez as the former Wigan Athletic manager confirmed the draw was his last result on the touchline in Brussels.
Despite Belgium having boasted some of the game’s top talent since he came into the role six years ago, including the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Dries Mertens, and Youri Tielemans, the Red Devils failed to reach a single tournament final at either the World Cup or the European Championship across four attempts.
The inquest is sure to begin and there may be quite a few heads the ax inevitably falls on, but perhaps the biggest question for many is why the Royal Belgian Football Association intrusted an incredibly gifted crop of talent to the hands of a manager who achieved little in comparison to what should have been required.
During his time at Swansea City, Wigan Athletic, and Everton, Martinez managed a win rate of just ~40% while also being relegated while at the helm of Wigan, but received justifiable praise for the shock FA Cup win during the 2012-13 season that saw them defeat Manchester City in the final by a 1-0 scoreline after a dramatic stoppage-time winner from Ben Watson.
But for all the talent under his command, Belgium has rarely sparkled on the international stage when it mattered most once the knockout stages came calling, with its zenith in terms of performance levels coming four years ago in Russia 2018 when they reached the semi-finals before ultimately finishing third in a tournament that saw them score 16 goals along the way.
How Belgium now navigates the coming months and years as the next crop of young players comes into the fore will make or break their footballing journey, but there is plenty to work with for the next man in through the likes of Charles De Ketelaere, Jeremy Doku, Arthur Theate, Zeno Debast, Amadou Onana, Loïs Openda, Alexis Saelemaekers, Yari Verschaeren, and Dante Vanzeir.
It might not be a talent pool laden with the same star power as the current crop, but there is still hope for a credible future in the low countries.