he Belgians had chance after chance to win, but never scored against Croatia. Morocco cruised past Canada to win the group.
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 game ended 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.
“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 none 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 he was still not fully recovered from a recent hamstring injury, Lukaku began the second half and quickly made his presence felt.