AL RAYYAN, Qatar — After the final whistle of a scoreless draw between the golden generations of two small European nations’ soccer teams, the end came for one of them. Eras in soccer last only so long, injuries and age catching up to all.
The tie was enough for Croatia to advance to the knockout stage of this World Cup. Its players, several of whom were on the field when Croatia lost the 2018 World Cup final in Russia, will get to play at least one more game in Qatar. They hugged and slapped hands after Thursday’s final whistle at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
But Belgium — a team that rose to new heights, and spent several years atop the world rankings and finishing third in 2018 — will go home. Once expected to contend for a World Cup title during an era in which it was able to call upon some of the world’s best players at several positions — goalkeeper, midfielder, forward — Belgium instead never won a major international title, or even reached a final. Now, its stars are unlikely to play together again. Most of Belgium’s top players are in their early to mid-30s. This trip to Qatar was their final collective shot.
“A huge disappointment for us,” Belgium Coach Roberto Martínez said.
After the game, Romelu Lukaku, 29, Belgium’s career leading scorer, was moved to tears and consoled by teammates on the sidelines. Axel Witsel, 33, a midfielder, collapsed to the ground, as did the 33-year-old defender Toby Alderweireld. Kevin De Bruyne, 31, a midfielder widely considered one of the best players in the world, walked around saying his goodbyes.
Martínez, Belgium’s coach since 2016, later admitted that he hugged everyone because it was to be his final game as the team’s leader.
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“It’s not every year that there’s a tournament,” Alderweireld said. “We’ll see what everyone is doing. It’s too close to the last game to decide. Everyone goes home now and moves to their club and has time to decide what they’re going to do. It hurts.”
Morocco, on the other hand, was filled with joy. With a 2-1 victory over Canada on Thursday, it won Group F. After a 2018 World Cup in which noner of Africa’s five qualifiers advanced to the knockout stage, Morocco joined Senegal in the round of 16 in Qatar — with Ghana in position to join on Friday. Morocco also represented hope for a different region: It is the only Arab country remaining in the first World Cup held in the Middle East.
Morocco was the only team in the group to win twice, toppling Canada and upsetting Belgium, 2-0, a result that led to riots in Brussels. By winning the group, Morocco earned a date on Tuesday with Spain, which finished as the runner-up of Group E after losing to Japan. Croatia will take on Japan on Monday.
“If we play at this level, we fear no one,” Zlatko Dalic, Croatia’s coach since 2017, said through an interpreter.
On Thursday, Belgium, which needed to win to advance, played its best game of the tournament. But Croatia, led by its 37-year-old captain Luka Modric and other World Cup veterans like Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic and Ivan Perisic, held its own as the teams traded attacks and counterattacks.
The game might be remembered most for the handful of close-range chances by Lukaku in the second half that looked like sure goals but somehow missed. Unable to play a full game because of he is still not fully recovered from a recent hamstring injury, Lukaku began the second half and quickly made his presence felt.
In the 61st minute, his shot off a rebound clanked off the right goal post. A minute later, he headed a ball from De Bruyne just over the crossbar. In the 87th minute, after he sent a ball inches to the right of the goal from close range, he hunched over in disbelief with his hands on his knees. Three minutes later, Lukaku knocked a ball off his chest toward the goal a few feet away only to have it saved by Dominik Livakovic.
“We’re very disappointed,” Alderweireld said, adding later, “With a little bit more luck and quality, we would have scored and been on to the next round.”
The luck and quality never came. Throughout the tournament, there were reports of discord within the team, which Martínez dismissed. They began when De Bruyne made waves for saying that this team was too old to win the title. The comments appeared to roil some of his teammates, such as the 35-year-old defender Jan Vertonghen, who told reporters after Belgium’s loss to Morocco on Sunday that the team attacked “badly because we are also too old up front.”
After Thursday’s game, midfielder Timothy Castagne said the team’s effort against Croatia showed that his teammates were united. But he admitted that “a big change” was coming for the team, from Martínez on down.
“Hopefully we can use this failure and not let it happen again,” Castagne, 26, said, adding later about this golden generation for Belgium: “They did great things for the nation. Now we have to try to do it again.”
Martínez said that he had decided before the tournament that this would be it for him as Belgium’s coach once his contract expired after this World Cup. He rattled off the players’ accomplishments and noted how proud he was of them. He held back his emotions when he said he couldn’t carry on as their coach.
“We weren’t the team that we are,” he said in explaining Belgium’s struggles. “We listened to the noise from the outside. We had a fear of losing a game.”
As a chapter of Belgian soccer closed, Martínez said “the real fans” would appreciate what this group had done and the joy it had provided. Croatian fans, on the other hand, will get to keep watching and appreciating their team — for now.
“We will stay here together one more game,” defender Josip Juranovic said. “Maybe three. We’ll see.”