It was always going to be tough for Belgium on Saturday versus two-time world champions Argentina and the imperious Lionel Messi, in front of a raucous, partisan crowd at Brasilia's Estadio Nacional.
But as they walked onto the pitch ahead of their 2014 FIFA World Cup™ quarter-final, the Europeans’ relaxed grins, and their subsequently unimpressive collective display, suggested they had possibly misread the immensity of the occasion.
A few minutes later, Gonzalo Higuain’s opening goal had already transformed Belgian smiles into frowns. La Albiceleste had decided to stamp their authority on the match from the outset, an approach that frustrated their opponents, especially their high-profile midfield maestro. “We were just lacking a little bit of luck. The early goal was a big blow,” Eden Hazard told FIFA in a post-match interview.
“I’m very disappointed, but we’ve still had a very good World Cup – we achieved our original objective, after all,” pointed out the Chelsea man, who cut an exasperated figure in Brazil's federal capital, and was eventually substituted 15 minutes from time.
His tone of voice and facial expression revealed a different story, however, one in which the Belgians may have passed up an excellent chance of attaining the semi-finals of the World Cup. Reduced to firing forward long balls that failed to catch out a solid and resolute Argentinian defence, they were unable to produce the inspiration required to conjure up an equaliser.
We were taught a useful lesson, and it’ll be up to us to learn from it.
Prior to the competition, many experts had stated that while Les Diables Rouges’ (Red Devils) golden generation had an extremely bright future, Brazil 2014 would come too early for them. That supposition was proved correct against their South American adversaries, much to the regret of Hazard.
“The Argentinians are used to playing in top-level matches with incredible tension. They know how to do the little things that make a big difference,” he said. Indeed, experience was often cited pre-tournament as the one thing the dynamic Belgian side was lacking, the diminutive nation having not appeared on football’s greatest stage for 12 years.
To ensure that they are involved again in four years’ time, Hazard and Co will need to assimilate the knowledge they have accrued during this World Cup apprenticeship. “We were taught a useful lesson, and it’ll be up to us to learn from it,” said the former Lille star. “We’ve got a young, highly talented team. We need to look to the future. We’ve already done really well to get this far.”
What could the Belgians have done differently, then, in order to unlock the Argentinian rearguard? “We need to make our interactions more automatic, and to do so we’ll just have to knuckle down in training,” remarked Hazard. “I know that we could have done much better, but we need to keep our heads up,” added the skilful 23-year-old, who has clearly been left harbouring a feeling of missed opportunity.
It is therefore with a mixture of pride and frustration that the Rode Duivels will depart from Brazil 2014. Although they accomplished their objective of reaching the last eight of the tournament, they may well look back and wonder if they could even have gone one or two steps further.
For Hazard, there is at least the satisfaction of having learned a valuable lesson, and the vow to come back even stronger next time around.