Assessment: Belgium making progress
Belgium had been picked by many as a team with an outside chance of lifting the World Cup trophy, but it was not to be, and Argentina eliminated them in a tight quarterfinal. Here is ESPNFC blogger Wim Van Walle's verdict on the brighter points of the campaign, as well as what went wrong.
One sentence: World Cup recap
Belgium's young team of course have reason to be disappointed but have done enough in Brazil to hold their heads up with pride.
Although Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens, Divock Origi and many others impressed, for sheer consistency it is hard to look past Daniel Van Buyten. Given that he is 36, it is likely this World Cup will be his last big tournament. The fact that he managed to hold on to his place amid the host of young talent Belgium has available is testament to his enduring class. He had in recent years become second choice but kept himself available, happy to deputise for his country, and did so with some efficiency in qualification. He played every minute of every game and did not make any errors defensively, while his buildup play was exemplary. Knowing his limitations, Van Buyten never tried a fancy pass but securely got the ball to his more skillful teammates.
A presence off the pitch as well, Belgium's most decorated player (14 league and cup wins with Bayern) is a respected figure, and his young teammates made full use of his experience. After Romelu Lukaku's miserable experiences in the group stage, Van Buyten spent a lot of time with the striker, as he knew exactly how Lukaku felt, having previously been targeted as a scapegoat during times of Belgian struggle. When Lukaku scored against the USA, Van Buyten said he "was in agony with pain, but I wanted to be with him before anyone else, so I sprinted like mad." It sums up Van Buyten both as a man and a player. The eternal team man, Belgium will miss his presence and perseverance.
Belgium didn't thrill too often, but the whole game against USA has to go down as one of the highlights, not just for the Red Devils but the World Cup as a whole. The way Belgium pinned their opponents back was impressive, and they finally showed the world what all the hype was about.
All team assessments
Group Stage: Australia | Bosnia-Herzegovina | Cameroon | Croatia | Ecuador | England | Ghana | Honduras | Italy | Iran
Ivory Coast | Japan | Portugal | Russia | South Korea | Spain
Round of 16: Algeria | Chile | Greece | Mexico
Nigeria | Switzerland | Uruguay | United States
Quarterfinals: Colombia | France | Belgium | Costa Rica
Semifinals: Brazil | Netherlands
In terms of individual moments, if Eden Hazard failed to make the expected overall impact, he did weave his magic for Belgium's goal against Russia by breaching the back line with a fantastic move and playing the ball back for Origi to finish with aplomb.
Romelu Lukaku's goal against the USA will be hard to forget too, both for the brutal force of it and the way it was celebrated. Lukaku ran to the camera and screamed: "Je t'aime, Papa!" (I love you, Dad!) to his father, who had been unable to make the trip to Brazil due to illness. After that, he celebrated with his on-pitch father, Van Buyten.
The whole game against Argentina feels like one big low point. A deflection off the calf of Jan Vertonghen took the ball to Gonzalo Higuain to make it 1-0. After that, Argentina refused to allow a game to develop; Belgium couldn't find an answer to this negative approach, and so a semifinal clash of the Low Countries fell by the wayside. Argentina were not the better team in the encounter, and Belgium justifiably felt hard done by; it somehow feels worse than being played off the pitch by a superior opponent.
The lack of impact from set pieces is surely something that must be addressed; Belgium had 40 corners but failed to make a single one count, with most being hit either too long or too short. Coach Marc Wilmots said he didn't see the point of practicing corners, as he expects his players to know how to handle them, but this is not club football, and it could have made the difference if the Red Devils had corner routines to turn to.
However, Belgium can take many positives out of this World Cup. But for the presence of Van Buyten, Belgium would have been the youngest team in the competition. Their target was to reach the round of 16, and having gone one better, Belgium is both proud and hopeful of greater success at Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup -- when these players will all have a few extra years of maturity and experience.
Wim Van Walle has contributed to ESPNFC since 2010. Back in 1980, his passion for football was decided by the teams of the day. And apparently it stuck. Three decades later, Van Walle is still as passionate about Belgium's Red Devils and Nottingham Forest.