Belgium's golden generation miss best chance to win World Cup
It's the curse of the Golden Generation. They don't always win the big ones, do they? Portugal's Golden Generation - the one of Luis Figo et al, for whom the term was coined - fell at the very last hurdle in Euro 2004; England's, the team of Rooney, Lampard and Gerrard, couldn't make it out of the round of 16 and the group stage in 2010 and 2014 respectively; and now Belgium's has fallen to a French team that is possibly yet to reach its peak.
Belgium's best players - Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku - are still in their 20s now and would not be over the hill come Qatar 2022 - or the Euros two years from now. But this was their best chance to win a World Cup and it's over. France's most exciting player, by contrast, is still a teenager.
There are many reasons to feel bad for this Belgian team; it has played some of the most exciting football in demolishing Tunisia, showed spirit in fighting back to beat Japan, and held off Brazil in their previous match. In doing so they've found different winners and heroes each time but one player has been consistent through the tournament.
Eden Hazard had led his country from the front - never more so than today, when his team-mates failed to match his level of application and rise up to their own potential. And at the end, when the dream was over, he stood spent, before summoning the energy to commiserate and congratulate.
Hazard gave his all today. At times it seemed he and Thibault Courtois were playing a different game, as though they were the only ones aware that a World Cup final was 90 minutes away - if they wanted it. Hazard certainly did. One run, just after the half-hour mark, saw him shrug off three opponents - Rafael Varane, Paul Pogba and Benjamin Pavard - before he ran out of space and the ball ran out of play. That was one of a dozen dribbles to his name today.
After the match, France's coach Didier Deschamps said his gameplan had been to suffocate Belgium "because they can be like lightning rods". That's a good way to describe Hazard today - lightning fast with the ball. Perhaps - and it's a wicked thought - he was auditioning for the jobs that will now be available at Europe's biggest clubs, with Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer to Juventus sure to set transfer dominos in motion, He will have done his market valuation no harm tonight.
Once France scored, they began to close ranks and Lukaku and de Bruyne were proving ineffective, Hazard began to go deeper into his own half - often near his own box - for the ball, and run with it. As the match wore on he was the recipient of some pretty strong tackles.
Ultimately this game, like most of the knockout matches, was always going to be defined and decided by the small margins, and it's ironic in a way that a game with some of Europe's best creative talent was decided by a defender with a headed goal off a set-piece. On balance, France had the magical moments - prime among those being Kylian Mbappe's double-backheel - and even their stars raised their levels sufficiently to win the match.
And so Belgium flickered, and eventually the flame died. It had begun so brightly but somewhere along the way the coach, Roberto Martinez, seemed to have lost his touch and it all became a bit scratchy; the fluidity of the first couple of games was gone. The golden generation has blown its chance to take that title to its logical conclusion. The only hope is that Hazard and de Bruyne are still as good four years down the line.