Euro 2016, in particular, will be a source of regret, the best chance the country had to win something. So, too, might the fact that this tournament was delayed by a year. Had Euro 2020 actually been held in 2020, Belgium would have been a year younger, a year fresher. Perhaps that might have made all the difference.
Some of its mainstays, certainly, are running out of time. Vermaelen is 35, Vertonghen 34 and Alderweireld 32. Witsel, Nacer Chadli and Dries Mertens are all in the autumn of their careers, too. Even Hazard — only 30, but plagued by injury for the past two years — may now be on an accelerated descent from his prodigious peak. For some, if not quite all, of them, the next major tournament, in Qatar next winter, is most likely a step too far.
Belgium’s golden generation — this squad that has been through only the most cosmetic of alterations since that first tournament in 2014 — will never make that final leap, will never win anything, not as it was meant to, not together.
And yet there is a misunderstanding here, too, because when the clock strikes midnight, nothing stops. It just means that a new day is starting. Generations do not rise and fall in perfect synchronicity; they fold and meld and blend into each other.
Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Witsel might not make it to the next World Cup, but Youri Tielemans and Yannick Carrasco and Timothy Castagne will. So, too, crucially, will De Bruyne and Lukaku. Belgium will not disappear. The binary — win something now or be condemned to indignity forever — is and always was an illusion. Martínez, if he remains in place, will still be able to take a fearsome side to Qatar.