Sadness as Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ exit World Cup

BRUSSELS (AFP) – Belgium’s defeat by France in their World Cup semi-final produced mixed feelings of sadness, gratitude and pride from fans at home early yesterday, who bemoaned a missed opportunity for their “golden generation”.

A second-half header from Samuel Umtiti in Saint Petersburg gave France a 1-0 win, earning them a place in Sunday’s final in Moscow against either England or Croatia.

Thousands of crestfallen fans walked away quickly after the final whistle sounded on a giant screen in the town of Waterloo, south of the Belgian capital Brussels.

“We’re very disappointed,” 27-year-old Alice Cordier told AFP in Waterloo.

“It’s really too bad to lose to France, Belgium’s national bad luck,” she added. “But we are still proud to be Belgian.”

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois fails to save Samuel Umtiti’s header from a corner kick
Samuel Umtiti celebrates after scoring the game’s only goal. – PHOTOS: AP

Some echoed the love-hate relationship and inferiority complex many French-speaking Walons have with their bigger neighbour France.

“We will hear it spoken about for one hundred years,” 26-year-old supporter Stephanie Smeets said. “The French will take the mickey out of us.”

It’s only the second time in history that Belgium have reached the World Cup semi-finals, 32 years after Diego Maradona’s Argentina beat them at the same stage in Mexico in 1986 before going on to win the title.

France won the World Cup in 1998 and are now in their third final.

But Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel was full of praise for the Red Devils.

“Bravo @BelRedDevils for your performance and having thrilled us until the semi-final,” Michel tweeted.

Belgium started the stronger of the two teams in Saint Petersburg but Umtiti’s header was the crucial breakthrough.

France’s other hero was goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who made a spectacular fingertip save in the first half to deny Toby Alderweireld and then kept out Alex Witsel’s drive as Belgium cranked up the pressure towards the end of the match.

France coach Didier Deschamps said he was delighted to have the chance to bury the pain of the Euro 2016 final, which his side lost on home soil.

“I am very happy for my players,” Deschamps said. “It was hard against a very good Belgium team. I take my hat off to my players and my staff.”

“Finals have to be won because we have still not got over the one we lost two years ago,” he added.

The defeat is painful for Belgium, foiled at the semi-final for the second time in their history, as the clock ticks on their so-called “golden generation”.

Captain Eden Hazard dazzled in patches but Kevin De Bruyne was quiet and Romelu Lukaku was a shadow of the player he had been earlier in the tournament, even though Belgium dictated possession.

Martinez bemoaned the goal his team conceded from a corner.

“I couldn’t ask more of the players’ attitude,” he said. “If you are going to have to lose such a match, which is bearable, it is the manner in which our players lost, pushing for everything, trying everything until the final whistle.”

For many observers, this generation of talented players including Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and others had a real chance to come home victorious.

“Regrets are eternal. It will not be our day of glory on this 10 July,” a presenter of Belgium’s French-language RTBF television station said after the final whistle.

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said his team’s defeat was a “shame for football”, criticising Didier Deschamps’s side for a defensive style of play.

“It was a frustrating match. France didn’t play at all, they defended with 11 players within 40 metres of their goal,” Chelsea goalkeeper Courtois told Belgian TV channel RTBF.

“They played on the counter-attack with (Kylian) Mbappe, who is very quick. That’s their right. They know when an opponent plays very deep.

“The frustration is there because we didn’t lose to a team who are better than us, we lost to a team who play nothing, just defend.

“Against Uruguay (in the quarter-finals) they scored with a free-kick and a goalkeeping error. Today, a corner. It’s a shame for football that Belgium didn’t win today.”