DOHA – His eyes welling up, Roberto Martinez said his goodbyes and left, his next whereabouts unknown.
It is the end of an era for Belgium’s golden generation. But for the man who led it to third place at the 2018 World Cup, it is the beginning of something new.
A return to club soccer is on Martinez’ horizon after his six years in charge of Belgium ended in elimination at the group stage in Qatar with a goalless draw against Croatia on Thursday.
Precisely which club remains to be seen and may be dependent on how the Spanish coach’s time with Belgium’s most celebrated group of players is assessed.
“I know some people only see a legacy by winning a major tournament. I see it in a different way,” said Martinez, who was appointed in 2016. “I’m extremely proud, I love the way the team has played. The real fans in Belgium appreciate it. But it’s the time for me to leave.”
Martinez said he “wanted to give it another go,” at this World Cup, but that ultimately ended in disappointment at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and likely recrimination in the coming days.
Belgium is not the first team to be given the tag of “Golden Generation” only to then be accused of failing to live up to expectations.
England’s class of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney came up short in successive major tournaments. Former coach Sven-Goran Eriksson was blamed for wasting the talent at his disposal after bowing out of two World Cups and one European Championship, each at the quarterfinals stage, during his reign from 2001 to 2006.
There is a sense of Belgium also being a missed opportunity, making it difficult to pitch what level he returns to in club soccer after managing Swansea, Wigan and Everton previously.
He has had his chances to leave Belgium in the past and was linked with jobs at Aston Villa, Everton and Tottenham.
His family home is still in Wigan in the northwest of England and the Premier League is said to be his preference.
Martinez will do well to find a club that contains as much quality as he oversaw with Belgium, where he coached world class talents like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne, as well as the country’s all-time leading scorer Romelu Lukaku.
His most impressive achievement in club management was winning the FA Cup with Wigan in 2013 when the rank outsider beat the mighty Manchester City 1-0 at Wembley. It was the first and only major trophy won by the club, which has spent the majority of its 90-year existence in the lower reaches of English soccer.
But Wigan was relegated from the Premier League that same season, with Martinez then appointed by Everton, where he lasted three years before he was fired.
Belgium was ranked No. 1 by FIFA for four years during Martinez’ time and came into this World Cup having slipped one position to No. 2.
But that ranking masked problems in his squad leading up to Qatar, with Lukaku carrying an injury, Hazard also hampered by fitness issues and a peripheral figure at Real Madrid.
Still, Belgium would have qualified for the round of 16 if not for a host of missed chances against Croatia, most notably from Lukaku, who showed his frustration when punching through the side of the dugout as he walked off the field at the end.
That frustration will have been shared by Belgium soccer fans everywhere, with this likely to be the last chance for such a gilded, but aging, group of players to win a major tournament.
With that squad now expected to be broken up, some may blame Martinez for failing to capitalize on the talent he had and guide Belgium to a trophy.
Meanwhile, he points to the nation’s highest-ever placing at a World Cup four years ago as validation of his work, which also included a role as Belgium Soccer Federation’s technical director since 2020.
His next job may indicate which side of that argument wins out.
James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports