At the end of his 126th and last international for Belgium, Eden Hazard looked around the Ahmad bin Alli stadium in Al Rayyan and saw too many farewell signs. His team, bronze medallists at the World Cup four years earlier, had just been knocked out in the group phase of Qatar 2022. Hazard had been given just three minutes off the bench to try and launch a late rescue of the campaign.
Romelu Lukaku had come on at half time with a similar mission, Belgium’s all-time record scorer asked for the one goal that would, with the score 0-0 against Croatia, have pushed the so-called Red Devils into the knockouts. On came Youri Tielemans to add guile. On came Thorgan Hazard, who in recent years has become a better guarantee of zipping past a marker than his fading, more gifted elder brother.
None could break the deadlock that day, and at the final whistle players and staff prepared for repeated goodbyes. It was the last sighting together of those twin defensive pillars, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, a pairing first brought together more than a dozen years earlier and veterans of 366 senior matches together for their clubs or for Belgium, where they were so often blessed with the towering Thibaut Courtois as their backstop and by Axel Witsel as the formidable midfield sentry just in front of them.
Great hopes had been invested in these totems of Belgium’s so-called “golden generation”. But within the camp in Qatar, there had been doubts and disagreements. Kevin de Bruyne, the captain, had voiced concerns this was a side that might already be past its peak. “Too old,” De Bruyne had told an interviewer asking whether his cohort could win the 2022 World Cup.
The announcement on Monday that Eden Hazard has retired from all football at the relatively young age of 32 draws a significant curtain on what is widely held to be the finest concentration of talent within an age-group in Belgium’s football history. The sad retreat from activity of Hazard, after four injury-disrupted and minimum-impact years at Real Madrid, from a sport he once made so watchable, echoes a wider sense of loss.
Belgium’s golden generation have not all stepped aside in a single, choreographed moment, but it is not just Hazard, their leading star for much of the last decade, who is off stage.
Aldeweireld, 34, has retired from internationals. So has his contemporary Witsel, some of whose authority in midfield would naturally pass to Tielemans, 26. But Tielemans, who suffered relegation from the Premier League last May with Leicester City, is yet to start a game for his new club, Aston Villa, amid reports he has fallen out with head coach Unai Emery.
Another flag-bearer for the next generation, attacking midfielder Charles de Ketelaere, is also coming off a difficult year. He joined AC Milan amid great expectations in 2022. After a season of just nine starts in Serie A, he has been loaned to Atalanta.
The squad named by Belgium’s head coach Domenico Tedesco for the European Championship qualifiers in Austria Friday and Sweden next week is also missing important generals; 32-year-old De Bruyne being is recovery from a hamstring issue aggravated early in Manchester City’s opening match of the Premier League season, and Courtois, 31, having been ruled out until well into the new year with a cruciate ligament injury.
Courtois’s absence denies him the chance to mend fences as well as set his usual high standards of goalkeeping. He left Belgian practice in June citing an injury ahead of a 1-1 draw with Austria amid reports he had been unhappy not to be given the national captaincy.
In an interview published in Le Soir newspaper, the full-back Timothy Castagne reported anger within the squad at Courtois. “Thibaut is the best Belgian keeper,” he said. “But we do have to ask if we want to sacrifice the unity of the group for the sake of one player?"
Castagne later added that he regretted speaking publicly about the issue.
It is not the first sign of internal division. There were raised voices in the dressing room during the World Cup. And the sense that a unique, once-in-a-century opportunity has been passed up shadows the senior players still involved with the Red Devils.
Belgium, who have never won a major tournament, is a relatively small country, with a population barely a sixth of France’s and almost eight times smaller than Germany’s. It may wait a very long time before such a rich flow of talent as there was in the Hazard-De Bruyne-Courtois era comes around again.