The win and a place in the round of 16 at the World Cup was there for Belgium. All the team needed was for Romelu Lukaku to score as the ball reached him in front of goal in the final seconds.
Somehow, he missed.
Belgium and its aging generation of players were eliminated Thursday after a 0-0 draw with Croatia, which advanced as the second-place team in Group F behind Morocco.
While Croatia — the 2018 runner-up and a 1998 semifinalist — aims for another deep run at the World Cup, Belgium is facing the breakup of its talented but underachieving squad after failing to live up to its status as the second-ranked team and one of the tournament favorites.
Lukaku, who came on as a halftime substitute and squandered several great chances, punched the side of the dugout as he walked off, knocking the plexiglass screen out of place.
Not only did he fail to guide in that late chance from close range, he hit a shot against the post with the goal beckoning. Another chance, from a header in front of goal, sailed over the bar, but it’s not clear if the goal would have counted.
What has long been called Belgium’s “Golden Generation” — now featuring six players with more than 100 appearances — is set to split with the World Cup semifinal appearance in 2018 as its peak.
The team, which has faced questions of infighting between players during the tournament in Qatar, scored only one goal in three games and saved its best performance until its final match. It came too late.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, who has been in charge for more than six years, was asked after the game if he will remain coach.
“Now is not the moment,” he answered.
Croatia will play the winner of Group E on Monday.