France’s reputation for fine wine is well known. The whiff of sour grapes may have come from Belgium after a World Cup semi-final defeat. “It’s just an anti-football team,” said Thibaut Courtois. “I prefer to lose with Belgium than win with France,” sniffed Eden Hazard. “We play most beautifully.”
Their sentiments may brook dissent, and not merely in Paris, given the way Kylian Mbappe has captured imaginations, but Belgium’s disappointment was understandable. They were only beaten by a set-piece – which some would say is the sort of fate that can befall Roberto Martinez’s teams – when victory would have rendered them favourites in the final.
A chance of this magnitude is unlikely to come around again. Certainly not for Vincent Kompany, who was musing last year about international retirement after the World Cup, and probably not for others in the older half of the team. And not, as a result, for the younger brigade, even if Hazard, Courtois, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne could be at or near their respective peaks in Qatar in 2022.
It is natural to think of what might have been, to wonder if a country of just 11 million people could conquer the footballing world. Ever a man to bring division, Jose Mourinho accused some of Belgium’s players of “hiding”. He excused Hazard; presumably he was not blaming his Manchester United charges, Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini, either. Yet that felt overly harsh. Had Belgium gone missing, Hugo Lloris would not have been required to make some excellent saves or Raphael Varane to produce a defensive masterclass.
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So this should not be a time for regret and recrimination. Belgium travelled further than most thought likely when they found themselves in the tougher half of the draw. Their comeback against Japan ranks as the most extraordinary in the tournament’s first 61 games, Nacer Chadli’s injury-time winner was both its most joyous and cruel moment. In a World Cup lacking a signature tactic, the boldest, most brilliant strategy came when Martinez ripped up his blueprint against Brazil, installed De Bruyne as a false nine, played Lukaku on the right and confounded the favourites.
If nothing else, it ought to disprove the blinkered notion that Martinez is some kind of a fraud. He has never lacked the courage to take decisions; some proved masterstrokes on the biggest stage of all. He proved a distinct improvement on Marc Wilmots, who was out of his depth in successive quarter-final exits. As Hazard said, Belgium entertained.
Doubters have been answered. Hazard was upstaged by Mbappe in the second half in Saint Petersburg, but his first-half efforts, like his brilliant display against Brazil, exposed the flaws in the argument that he does not perform in the major matches. Lukaku is the supposed flat-track bully who, without scoring, bullied Brazil. Fellaini remained as ungainly and inelegant as ever but exerted a major, positive influence in two World Cup knockout games. Yannick Carrasco and Mousa Dembele had underwhelming tournaments, but few of their colleagues did.
The prosaic truth may be twofold: that Belgium lost to a France side which, in Mbappe, has a man auditioning for the title of the world’s best player and which has greater strength in depth. The fact remains they lined up for a World Cup semi-final with Nacer Chadli, an attacking midfielder who got two Premier League starts at relegated West Bromwich Albion last season, at right-back. He was no weak link but Thomas Meunier’s suspension nevertheless showed the gulf in resources between the neighbours.
Belgium may regard themselves as morally superior to France. On the football pitch, however, they were slightly inferior.