A scoreless draw at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium sent Croatia through and Belgium home. Belgium coach Roberto Martinez confirmed afterwards that it was his last game in charge, but the match will be remembered for only one thing: the extraordinary personal nightmare endured by Belgium’s record scorer, Romelu Lukaku.
Every child who has played football has dreamt of how it might feel to score at the World Cup, with your whole country watching. Nobody has ever considered the possibility that they might one day play in a World Cup only to suffer what happened to Lukaku here.
Lukaku, who had played hardly 40 minutes of football since the start of September, began his journey into hell when he replaced the ineffective Dries Mertens at half-time.
His first chance came just after the hour, when Yannick Carrasco ran on to Kevin De Bruyne’s pass and saw his shot blocked by Croatia’s right back Josip Juranovic. The ball broke for Lukaku, who seemed likely to score from 10 yards with his less-favoured right foot, but his hard shot cracked off the inside of the post and cannoned across goal to safety.
With two Croats flinging themselves across to try to block Lukaku did not have that much goal to aim at, but there was no doubt he had just missed the best chance of the match so far.
The next stop on his personal Stations of the Cross came just two minutes later, as De Bruyne raced down the left and dug a cross out from close to the goal line. The ball was slightly deflected by the head of a Croatian defender and seemed to surprise Lukaku, who looped a poor header over an open goal.
Replays showed that the ball had actually gone over the line before De Bruyne hit the cross, so if Lukaku had managed a proper header the goal would not have counted, yet the striker’s reaction to the miss, standing for 10 seconds with his hands on his head, showed that the embarrassment nevertheless cut deep.
Lukaku’s next major involvement was a tussle in midfield, when he powerfully shrugged aside a couple of Croatian challengers and had the chance to release a team-mate breaking away into space down the left. This action looked like a typical confidence-builder, the kind that can reassure you that you’re playing yourself back into the game. Instead he hit what should have been a simple pass directly to a Croat who started a counterattack.
In the 87th minute, Belgium’s right back Thomas Meunier hit a hard cross towards Lukaku at the near post, but the striker’s body position was wrong and he shinned it wide. Again Lukaku’s hands went to his head. But the worst was yet to come.
In the 90th minute, as Belgium attacked frantically, Thorgan Hazard chipped a superb cross from the right of the box which sailed over Croatia’s goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic at the near post and Dejan Lovren in the middle, with Lukaku closing in at the far post. All he had to do was bundle it somehow into the empty net. But the ball bounced off his body across goal rather than into it, straight into the hands of the disbelieving Livakovic.
Lukaku stood bent over on Croatia’s goal line with his hands on his knees for fully 30 seconds, then as the game restarted, walked to the edge of the area and assumed the same position. He knew what he had just done would go down as the most infamous miss, and probably the most infamous moment, of his international career.
He remained in this attitude of – shock? mourning? penitence? self-pity? – as the game went on around him. And this seemed to displease the gods of football, who sent one more chance as if to mock him.
In the 92nd minute the ball came in from the left and bounced off a defender towards Lukaku in the six-yard box ... but Joško Gvardiol reacted quicker and stretched to make a brilliant clearance. Would he have reacted faster if he had not already seemed so shattered by his previous misses? It was one more boulder to throw on the mountain of regret.
Only one of the five chances Lukaku had missed was really easy, and one of them – the header – should not technically count as a chance. The cumulative effect of the misses, though, was truly awful. Maybe only Loris Karius has sunk to this circle of football hell.
The final whistle blew and Belgium were out, marking the end of this once-great team, and sadly for Lukaku everyone will remember it was he who brought the final curtain down.
He bunched his shirt up to his face and walked to the side of the pitch, where Belgium assistant manager Thierry Henry was waiting to console him. Two other members of staff joined the huddle as the big man buried his head in Henry’s shoulder and cried. This tragic scene continued for some 40 seconds.
It was shocking that at the lowest moment of Lukaku’s career, his team-mates came nowhere near him.
After separating from Henry, Lukaku crouched down at the sideline, then walked towards the dugout where he lashed out at the plastic wall of the cabin in frustration. Only then did Youri Tielemans, one of the junior members of this aged Belgian team, come jogging over to acknowledge his broken team-mate.
Martinez’s departure from the job was overdue. Brought in to lead Belgium to greatness and retained to oversee a seamless transition to a new generation, he instead leaves behind an old and exhausted squad, riven by feuds. Before the tournament De Bruyne had assessed Belgium as having “no chance” because they were “too old”. Some of his team-mates didn’t like it, because the truth sometimes hurts. But nobody thought the end would be as horrible as this.
Most of them at least have the comfort of knowing they’re not the most obvious scapegoat. The deep sadness for Lukaku is in the knowledge that the game will probably define his career in the eyes of many Belgians. All he can do is try to remember the lesson of the last couple of minutes of this game. Even when all seems lost, football has a way of giving you another chance.