Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said luck was against his side as they fell short against France in the World Cup semi-final on Tuesday, losing 1-0 in Saint Petersburg as the ‘golden generation’ saw another chance slip away.
A Samuel Umtiti header from a corner was the difference between the European neighbours, with Belgium enjoying most of the possession without managing to break down a superb French defence.
“It was a very tight game. There were not many big moments that were going to decide the game and it came down to one dead-ball situation,” said Martinez of the 51st-minute goal that separated the sides.
“We had the ball and I think we have to give a lot of credit to France for the way they defended — they were very deep, they gave us a lot of respect in that way and yet we couldn’t find a bit of margin in front of goal, a little bit of luck.
“That was the difference, but if you’re going to lose, I’m so proud of the players. You have to accept it and congratulate France and wish them luck in the final.”
Belgium had beaten Brazil in the quarter-finals but were hindered by the absence of suspended right-back Thomas Meunier against the French.
Midfielder Mousa Dembele came into their starting line-up, yet Martinez’s side seemed to miss the attacking thrust of Meunier down the flank.
“I didn’t see France running away with the game. It just came down to very small margins — the first goal was going to be vital.”
Belgium had won all five matches in Russia coming into their meeting with the French, and had scored 14 goals in the process.
There will be no first World Cup final for the Red Devils, and instead they must now try to lift themselves for the third-place play-off, back in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, against the loser of Wednesday’s semi-final between England and Croatia.
– ‘Finish on a high’ –
“It’s a really sad dressing room now, because the opportunity of being in the final was the only focus we had,” added Martinez.
“We could easily have frozen. France were in the final of the Euros, but I don’t want any of my players to be frustrated or disappointed.
“We want to finish on a high, and these players deserve to finish on a high.”
Martinez added: “It is a difficult emotion to manage — you are disappointed because you have lost the semi-final, and it is hard to see the opportunity of playing another game as a real positive.”
Belgium can still achieve their best-ever finish at a World Cup, bettering their performance in 1986, when they lost to Argentina in the semi-finals and then lost to the French in the third-place game.
This World Cup has represented progress for a team who lost in the quarter-finals of the 2014 tournament in Brazil and at Euro 2016.
But Belgians will now wonder if they have seen the best chance for this talented generation of players to win a major international title.
Fortunately, skipper Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois will all still be in their 20s by the time the next European Championship comes around in 2020.
“I think it’s too early to make any sort of assessment on the tournament,” said Martinez, who extended his contract through to 2020 shortly before the World Cup.
“We need to look at the younger generations, but we have the drive and ambition.
“Belgian football has a wealth of young talent coming through and with my role I have my eyes on the Euros in 2020 so I don’t want to make an assessment yet.”