Belgium’s end at the World Cup: Lukaku is crying big tears

Possibly Thierry Henry understood better than anyone how Romelu Lukaku felt on Thursday night. The French world and European champion scored all sorts of goals in his glorious career. But even the exceptional Henry, the Belgium national coach Roberto Martínez at the 2018 World Cup, the 2021 European Championship and now at the world tournament in Qatar assisted, not spared from missed great opportunities. For example, in the 2006 Champions League final, he missed a prime opportunity to decide the game in favor of his club Arsenal in the closing stages. Instead, FC Barcelona turned the game around with a double strike and won the trophy.

No goalscorer is spared such setbacks in the course of a career. But the Belgian Lukaku not only missed in the decider against Croatia for a place in the round of 16 one surefire chance of the winning goal – but two, three, four, five. He didn’t even have to use every opportunity. A single goal would have been enough for Belgium to take second place behind group winners Morocco.

So the dream of the Croatians, who will next have to do with Japan, lives on from a coup like four years ago, when the team around coach Zlatko Dalić surprisingly reached the final. Meanwhile, the feature film of the 0-0 is likely to cause nightmares for the Belgians and especially for Lukaku from now on.

To reinforce the attack, Martínez called on Lukaku as early as the second half, who had just recovered from an intractable thigh injury that kept him out of action for a month. With his assertiveness, he should serve the Belgians in the penalty area as a target player for crosses. Using almost every part of his body, head, chest, shin and foot, Lukaku tried to somehow push the ball over the goal line – increasingly desperate.

First he failed in the 48th minute of play by the Croatian goalkeeper, fifteen minutes later he headed over the goal from a free-standing position in the six-yard box. In the dramatic final phase, he finally became the unlucky man: In the 87th minute he deflected a cross with his shin just wide of the post and then stumbled a cross with his chest just before the goal line. Previously, he had thundered a rebound from a few meters into the inside post with his foot.

Out of desperation, Lukaku pulled his jersey over his head after the final whistle and smashed a plexiglass pane on the substitutes’ bench with his hand on the way to the stadium exit. Not even in the arms of Henry, who comforted him touchingly, did he find peace, big tears rolled down his face. The mishaps were sometimes commented on with mockery and malice.

The Spanish Newspaper AS wrote about Lukaku from the “LVP” (“least”) – the least valuable player – in reference to the designation “MVP” (“most valuable player”) for the most valuable player. In fact, he should have deserved some encouragement. He was trying to help his team and he sacrificed himself getting into this match against Croatia without any match practice.

Lukaku’s misfortune began in the summer of 2021 with the move from Inter Milan to Chelsea

For Lukaku, who has scored an incredible 68 goals in 103 international matches, the missed goal was the low point of a damn year and a half. They started with the move from Inter Milan to Chelsea in the summer of 2021 for a club-record fee of €113m. At the time, he was considered the king transfer of the Londoners. With him, the club pursued the ambition of winning the Premier League. However, the high expectations threw him back, as did numerous physical problems.

At no point did he appear to be in the best of shape (and reportedly he wasn’t always doing everything he could to be). In December 2021 he gave a momentous interview to the TV channel Sky Italia, in which he turned his nose up at Chelsea a bit too much and at the same time raved about Inter. The club ordered a hefty fine, ending his days with the Blues. After the season, Chelsea loaned him to Inter. There he is not really getting going again due to a number of injuries. At the age of 29, it can be assumed that Lukaku can regain his old form – but does that also apply to his national team colleagues?

Immediately after the game, the visibly emotional coach Martínez resigned after six years, his contract expired anyway. No player wanted to go that far at first. Both the veterans Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens, both 35, as well as Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld, both 33, and captain Eden Hazard, 31, kept a low profile about their future in the national jersey. Some of them could speculate on the upcoming European Championships in Germany in summer 2024.

However, the question arises more and more whether their participation is wanted at all. The Belgian daily newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws headlined: “Jan, Dries, Axel, Toby … it was nice!” Model professional Kevin De Bruyne recently criticized bluntly that the team was “too old”. His statements caused a dispute and tarnished the reputation of the team, whose best result is a respectable third place at the 2018 World Cup.

Despite the incident and the associated early exit, the fans would appreciate what would have been achieved over the years, believes Martínez. And as a farewell, he floated the thesis that if he had reached the round of 16, he would have seen “the real Belgium”. Especially in connection with the selection praised as the “golden generation”, that sounded like a last empty promise. As in the long goalless 2018 World Cup semi-final against France, the one decisive goal was missing – which Thierry Henry scored so often in his career.

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