The inside story of how Belgium’s World Cup turned toxic – The Athletic

Estimated read time 20 min read

In the blissful early stages of his tenure with Belgium, Roberto Martinez came up with an idea.

People had kept telling him the language barrier was a persistent problem in Belgian football, creating a natural divide between those from the Flemish-speaking north of the country, such as Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Kevin De Bruyne, and those whose first language is French, such as Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard.

And so, seeing polyglots such as Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku switch back and forth between the two languages and often resorting to English when they were speaking in a group, Martinez made a decision. English would become the squad’s lingua franca.

It certainly suited the coach, given he was a Catalan Spaniard who was fluent in English but not French or Flemish. But it appealed to the players, too. It created a sense of equality and unity in a national team where for decades there had been the feeling — sometimes perceived, sometimes very real — of a divided squad.

For a long time under Martinez, a sense of unity took hold. Yes there were still cliques in the squad and there were still tensions between certain individuals, but there was a spirit of collectiveness at the 2018 World Cup as Belgium reached the semi-finals for only the second time in their history. 

Gradually, though, some of the players found themselves retreating to their mother tongue. They had still often spoken among themselves in Flemish or French, but one source suggests that over the course of this World Cup campaign, even dating back to the qualifiers, there was less and less English spoken within the camp.

Belgium’s “golden generation” — a phrase that Martinez was more than happy to take up, embrace and run with — had a dreadfully disappointing World Cup.

They were lucky to beat Canada 1-0 in their first game, were soundly beaten 2-0 by Morocco in their second and, needing a win to avoid an early elimination, could only draw 0-0 with Croatia in their third.

They left the heat of Qatar on Friday afternoon, heading back to a cold European winter. The main squad flight arrived back at Brussels Airport shortly after 1am on Saturday, but others had made alternative arrangements to fly back to England or elsewhere. It was all quite messy and far from the farewell Martinez had imagined when he decided before the tournament that he would not stay on. Nor was it the ending Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Witsel and Eden Hazard would have envisaged as they weigh up whether their long, distinguished international careers may have reached an end.

A miserable campaign ended in tears and regrets, Lukaku looking inconsolable as he left the pitch on Thursday and then angrily smashing a Perspex screen in the dug-out.

His profligacy had cost his team against Croatia, looking rusty after he was rushed back from injury, but Belgium’s elimination was down to far more than that. Some feel, with hindsight, the warning signs were there long before they got to Qatar.

Some players were genuinely saddened when Martinez told them in the dressing room on Thursday that it had been his last game in charge. Others wished he had gone long ago, blaming him for failing to rebuild and re-energise the team once it became clear that some of the “golden generation”, not least Hazard, were fading in influence.

The fading of the lingua franca was not a reason for Belgium’s demise at this World Cup, but it was one of numerous symptoms of how things had slipped. And it made for a lot of hushed conversations about what was going wrong and for fingers to be pointed. There was plenty of that in Qatar.

When it came to choosing their training camp in Qatar, the Belgian FA went left field. While the vast majority of the 32 competing teams based themselves within 25km of Doha on the east coast, Martinez and his staff preferred to be more remote, opting for a base camp 150 km away at Salwa Beach on the southwestern coast of the Qatari peninsula.

The base itself was everything the squad wanted it to be, a secluded, luxury hotel next to the beach, but some of the senior players were not happy. Even within a country as small as Qatar, they felt isolated, cut off from family members who had come to support them.

Before the tournament, a “family day” was scheduled for last Monday, the day after they faced Morocco. The families would be invited to make their way through from Doha to Salwa Beach for a barbecue, which is an arrangement the players had enjoyed and welcomed at the previous World Cup in Russia four years ago.

This time, family members arrived to find an uncomfortable atmosphere. They had lost to Morocco the previous day and the fallout was still continuing. There had been disagreements and finger-pointing in the dressing room and most of the families were aware of the tension.

Kat Kerkhofs, the wife of forward Dries Mertens, said on the Midmid Mondial podcast that, while she believed the players were “super sweet to each other”, the barbecue had been “really awkward”.

Sources suggest that “awkwardness” was there from the moment they arrived in Qatar. There were frustrations felt towards the Belgian FA over the arrangements and towards Martinez over how their downtime was being managed. Martinez had initially brought a warmer, more relaxed approach than his predecessor Marc Wilmots, but arrangements became stricter and more regimented across his three tournaments in charge.

Roberto Martinez’s training camps became more regimented over time (Photo: Vincent Kalut / Photo News via Getty Images)

Some of the players felt that, given the size of the hotel at Salwa Beach, their families could easily have been allowed to stay on the other side of the resort, even if there were rules about when they could or couldn’t see them. But Martinez wanted clear lines of separation. Even interaction between the players and the wider Belgian FA staff seemed to be discouraged.

The tensions within the squad were primarily about football. Speaking to a variety of sources, that much is abundantly clear. But even before their campaign started with a sluggish performance against Canada, there were rumblings of discontent. In an unhappy camp, players often crave home comforts and distractions.

As with so much of this story, there are parallels with England’s underachieving “golden generation”. In this case, the parallels are with England’s miserable World Cup campaign in 2010.

Martinez had often talked about wanting his squad to be like a “family”. But by the time this World Cup came around, that family had begun to feel increasingly dysfunctional.

There is a popular belief that Belgium’s six years under Martinez were a disaster.

They weren’t. Far from it. After a friendly defeat by Spain in his first game in charge in September 2016, they won 46, drew nine and lost just three of their next 58 matches over a period spanning almost five years. They were top of the FIFA rankings for three and a half years between September 2018 and March 2022.

They were arguably the most eye-catching team at the 2018 World Cup, winning all three group matches, recovering from 2-0 down to beat Japan 3-2 in the round of 16 and then defeating Brazil in an epic quarter-final before losing 1-0 to France, the eventual winners, in a fiercely contested semi-final. At Euro 2020, they again fell narrowly to the eventual winners, this time Italy in an enthralling quarter-final, having won every game to that point.

But that defeat by Italy signalled the start of a sharp decline in results. Having lost just three matches out of the previous 58, Belgium lost seven of Martinez’s final 19 games in charge. Whenever they came up against a leading team in that latter period, they were beaten; 2-1 by Italy at Euro 2020, 3-2 by France and 2-1 by Italy in the 2021 Nations League finals, 4-1 and 1-0 by the Netherlands in Nations League group matches earlier this year.

Belgium’s decline was exposed by the Netherlands in the recent Nations League (Photo: Vincent Kalut / Photo News via Getty Images)

Belgium lost the ability to dominate opponents the way they had when beating England three times over the previous few years. Having built a possession-based, high-pressing team, Martinez found himself moving towards more of a counter-attacking style — not to play to his squad’s’ strengths but to try to compensate for their ever more apparent weaknesses.

One source suggests the team was no longer capable of playing a high-pressing style. De Bruyne could do it, but Hazard and Lukaku lacked the physicality to do so. “When two of your front three can’t press, the opposition play through you,” the source says, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Several sources close to the dressing room criticised Martinez for showing too much loyalty to Hazard. The captain made little impact in the first two games and when he was dropped to the bench for the must-win game against Croatia, the coach said it was protect him from the risk of injury.

Not only did Hazard fail to register a goal or an assist at this World Cup (having scored three goals and set up two in Russia four years ago), but the underlying data was drastically down too. Across his three appearances in Qatar, spanning 124 minutes, Hazard made just five successful dribbles and, according to Opta, five shot-creating actions (3.6 per 90 minutes in both categories). In six appearances at the 2018 World Cup, across 517 minutes of action, he completed 40 dribbles (seven per 90 minutes) and 35 shot-creating actions (6.1 per 90 minutes). He completed more than twice as many dribbles in the 2018 semi-final against France (11) than he did across all three games in 2022.

Eden Hazard was a shadow of his former self in the World Cup (Photo: Foto Olimpik/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The decline in Hazard’s output, having suffered a succession of injuries since joining Real Madrid in 2019, is well known. He has only one goal in his past 21 appearances for Belgium and one assist in his past 14. But until Thursday evening, his position — not just as a regular starter but in the unfamiliar role of captain — appeared unchallenged.

One source suggests it was “gutless” of Martinez not to drop Hazard earlier. Another suggests that while the former Chelsea player was previously “a free spirit who had brilliant game-changing moments”, which meant that certain allowances could be made for his lack of off-the-ball running, he now doesn’t do enough of either. There is great respect for Hazard’s status, but there was a feeling among some of his team-mates that Leandro Trossard or Jeremy Doku should have started instead of him against Morocco.

As for Lukaku, who was the fall guy after coming on against Croatia, there was more sympathy. He missed two months of the season with Inter Milan with a hamstring injury and was in danger of missing the World Cup after an apparent reoccurrence of that problem in early November. He was sent on as substitute in desperation against Morocco, to little effect, and did not appear ready to play for 45 minutes against Croatia, when his lack of sharpness became painfully evident with every chance that went begging.

With Lukaku struggling, Michy Batshuayi started the first two games. He scored against Canada, but he appeared not to be on the same wavelength as De Bruyne and Hazard. 

This pass map, showing how frequently players passed to each other in the Belgium-Canada game, highlights how isolated Michy Batshuayi was. 

Within the squad, there was surprise at Martinez’s reluctance to turn to Lois Openda, who had scored two goals in his first five appearances for Belgium but only got 13 minutes on the pitch in Qatar. 

And, yes, we also need to talk about Kevin.

At the time of writing, De Bruyne hasn’t spoken publicly or posted a word on social media since sharing some pictures with his wife and children when they had a brief moment together in the stands after the victory over Canada. “Nothing more important,” the Manchester City midfielder said.

In the build-up to the match against Morocco, The Guardian published an interview they had done with De Bruyne before he left for the World Cup. It was a nice piece, soft-focus and family-oriented at the player’s request, but when asked about Belgium’s chances in Qatar, he was casually dismissive, saying “No chance” and suggesting their big chance came and went four years ago.

“We have a good team, but it’s ageing,” he said. “We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018.”

In just a few words, De Bruyne had seemingly disparaged some of his older team-mates (the likes of Vertonghen, 35, and Alderweireld and Witsel, both 33) and suggested that the “good” younger players (presumably the likes of Amadou Onana, Youri Tielemans, Leandro Trossard, Charles De Ketelaere, Doku and Openda) were not yet good enough to bridge the gap.

A lot of people outside the squad would agree with that, but it was a careless thing for a senior player to say. De Bruyne is said to be upset by the way his comments were interpreted, feeling they were taken out of context — not in the original interview but subsequently. It certainly didn’t help relations within what was already an unhappy camp; Vertonghen made an oblique, withering reference to De Bruyne’s interview after the Morocco game, suggesting the performance was perhaps because Belgium were “too old in attack”.

Last Tuesday, French newspaper L’Equipe published details of a huge row between De Bruyne and Vertonghen, which required Lukaku to break it up. Several sources have suggested the disagreement was a little less explosive than portrayed, but it is certainly true that there was at least a very frank exchange between the two players and that Lukaku did indeed have to step in. There was also a terse discussion between Vertonghen and Hazard, although Hazard is said to have managed to appease the defender.

Tensions flared between Jan Vertonghen (left) and Kevin De Bruyne (middle) (Photo: Sarah Stier – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

There followed a crisis meeting among the players — even if Timothy Castagne objected to that description. “I think it was very important for us to have that meeting, but it wasn’t a ‘crisis meeting’ as you might have heard from some quarters,” the Leicester full-back said. “It was important to get some things off our chest and share our views, but it didn’t get out of hand.”

Courtois said in a press conference he was furious that someone within had squad had leaked “false things” to the media — and that if a mole, indeed a mole with a big imagination, was found, “it will probably be his last day in the squad”.

This has been a recurring issue with Belgium over the years. Courtois himself was accused publicly by Wilmots of leaking information at Euro 2016, an accusation the goalkeeper vehemently denied, threatening legal action. Martinez preferred to go down the “fake news” route, accusing L’Equipe of trying to undermine his team and, by doing so, bringing them together — scoring an own goal on Belgium’s behalf, he suggested.

Sources talk of individual tensions within the squad, but others say this is overstated. There were well-documented issues between Courtois and De Bruyne in the past — and there was much titillation on social media when pictures emerged of De Bruyne with his arm by his side when next to the goalkeeper in the pre-match huddle on Thursday — but they are certainly on speaking terms, as seen behind the scenes at the Ballon d’Or awards in October.

Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois (yellow jersey) have reportedly never been close (Photo: Liu Lu/VCG via Getty Images)

These are described as fairly typical dynamics between a group of players who have been together for years — some team-mate relationships are warm, some lukewarm, some cold — and it can need strong leadership within the group to defuse tensions. Several sources suggest Belgium have lacked that type of leadership since Vincent Kompany retired.

What Belgium have is a number of strong-minded, experienced players and a difficult dressing-room hierarchy. Antwerp and former Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan, who was one of the more outspoken personalities in the squad, once said Belgium suffer from having too many “individuals”. And that was before he was dropped from the squad by Martinez before the 2018 World Cup.

“The problem is if you have a lot of individualities and if people are playing for their own (themselves), it’s difficult,” Nainggolan told The Times in 2018. “Everyone wants to be important, you know? Hazard wants to be important, De Bruyne wants to be important, Lukaku wants to be important, so it’s difficult to put it all together — because he wants to show something, he wants to show something (…). This is the most difficult thing to learn.”

If Hazard’s miserable World Cup could have been predicted, based on his recent trajectory, De Bruyne’s struggles were more surprising. Some of his team-mates felt that, after his outspoken interview, he had been as guilty of underperformance as anyone. Others shared his all-too-visible frustration; if he was showing an individual streak that is kept in check at City, trying to dribble or shoot rather than pass to a team-mate, it was out of frustration at the lack of movement and quality around him.

Kevin De Bruyne was unusually wasteful in possession against Canada, as his pass map underlines.

Some of those around the squad suggest De Bruyne struggled with everything around this World Cup: the pressure to perform, the frustration with the coach’s decision, the disharmony behind the scenes. Words such as “disconnected” were used by sources. It was a very different environment to the one he is accustomed to at City.

De Bruyne is not the first big-name player, seemingly around the peak of his powers, to return from a World Cup feeling regretful and unfulfilled. He will certainly not be the last. But that will not lessen the anguish when he looks back on a World Cup that started badly and got progressively worse. His pre-tournament appraisal had been proved right, but by saying it openly, perhaps in the hope of easing expectations, he had brought more pressure on himself.

In that uniquely optimistic way of his, Martinez suggested after the 2-0 defeat by Morocco that Belgium now had an opportunity to start their World Cup against Croatia.

The former Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton manager said his team had played with a sense of fear against Morocco, with none of the “joy” which he felt had defined his Belgium team at their best. Other sources make the alternative suggestion that, rather than playing with fear, they had been guilty of overconfidence against Canada and Morocco. Whatever the reality, the squad warmed to the idea that they needed to free themselves of a burden and rediscover the enjoyment in their game, to rise to the challenge of beating Croatia rather than be consumed by the dread of failure.

It was certainly very different to the mood after the World Cup draw was made. At that point, some within the Belgium camp were talking less about the threat of Morocco and more about the frustration of Group F being paired with Group E, which they felt would mean facing Spain or Germany in the round of 16. (As it turned out, with Belgium and Germany going home early, Croatia will face Japan in the next round.)

Belgium did perform an awful lot better against Croatia. As one illustration of their increased intensity, they covered 120km in that game compared to just 107km against Morocco. In stark contrast to the game against Morocco, they looked better and better as the game went on, more and more dangerous with each substitution Martinez made. But when the chances fell to Lukaku, he couldn’t take them. He did not seem physically sharp, which seemed inevitable when rushing back in the team’s hour of need.

Romelu Lukaku had a night to forget against Croatia (Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Martinez seemed to get it right against Croatia, but that only reinforced the feeling that he had waited too long to look for quicker, more energetic alternatives to Hazard. The coach had made a strong impression in his first two or three years as coach, regarded as a stark upgrade on Wilmots, but some of his players lost faith after the Euros. After they were thrashed by the Netherlands in the Nations League, some of the players talked among themselves about how they would love to have a coach like Van Gaal.

It cannot have done much for Martinez’s stock among the players when it emerged that he was open to the idea of taking the Everton job last January, proposing a job-share arrangement which was eventually rejected by the Belgian FA. It was one of several approaches Martinez had from clubs — Aston Villa and Newcastle United showed strong interest and there was even interest from Barcelona at some point — and the feeling grew that, after six years as Belgium coach, he was ready for something else.

Things went stale under Martinez, but that is also a product of the decline of players such as Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Hazard as well as the loss of Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and others. With an average age of 27.8, they were only the fifth-oldest squad at the World Cup, but there was a heavy reliance on a nucleus of players aged 30-plus: Courtois, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Witsel, De Bruyne, Hazard. Even if they performed well in training and the warm-up matches, the youngsters seemed to be making up the numbers.

Looking towards Euro 2026, it is felt unlikely that Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Witsel and Mertens will remain part of the squad for long, whether they retire from international football or not. Hazard is reported to be considering his future, but his plans are not clear. Courtois and Lukaku are firmly expected to continue.

There is a feeling within the squad that, even if the “golden generation” is fading, Belgium have enough talent in attacking areas to move on with the likes of De Ketelaere, Openda and Doku. There is more concern about the quality and depth of their defensive options. Arthur Theate, 22, and Wout Faes, 24, would appear the logical candidates to take over in central defence, but they are largely unproven at the top level, hence Martinez’s decision to keep faith with Alderweireld and Vertonghen to the very end.

As for De Bruyne, he too is firmly expected to continue, looking ahead to the Euros, but he is 31 now and he will turn 35 during the next World Cup. These tournaments don’t come around often and, if he felt his and Belgium’s best chance of glory was in 2018, then the 2026 World Cup must feel an awfully long way off. 

On Saturday morning, De Bruyne was back in Cheshire, shivering on the touchline at a local school, watching his son playing in an under-7s match, enjoying his football, without a care in the world.

Qatar and the miseries of this World Cup must have felt a long way away, but the frustrations of the past fortnight will take much longer to subside.

(Top photo design: Eamonn Dalton)

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours

Leave a Reply