ST PETERSBURG (Reuters) - A third place finish at the World Cup on Saturday leaves a strong legacy for Belgian football, coach Roberto Martinez said, as he declared the tournament a success for his team.
"We set a real milestone and it is exactly what these players deserved," he said after the 2-0 playoff win over England at the Saint Petersburg Stadium ensured Belgium’s best ever World Cup finish.
"We wanted to win it. Obviously, when you beat Brazil and you get into the semi-finals, the focus has to be on trying to win the World Cup. But we also have to be realistic and when you look back at the tournament, these players made history back in Belgium, and that's all that matters," Martinez said.
He noted that the team had gone one step further than the Belgian squad at the 1986 World Cup, who lost their playoff match and finished fourth.
"The generation of ’86 in Mexico were always an inspiration and set a vision for all football in Belgium, and now this group of players have exceeded that, and that’s historic. It’s taken 32 years to be in this position and that gives a real sense of satisfaction,” Martinez added.
“It is the manner in which we achieved it. The way we played with our brand of Belgian football, the togetherness and the flexibility we had showed tactically.
“It’s been a really successful journey, but in football you need to look forward and look to improve with the next opportunity we have.”
Martinez said Belgium now needed to work on their junior structures and get their age-group teams winning more. "So that there can be a seamless flow of talent into the national team," he said.
Martinez said allowing the players' families in the team camp after Tuesday's 1-0 semi-final loss to France had lifted the mood for the third-place playoff, always a difficult match for sides still wallowing in the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup final.
Sunday's decider in Moscow, he added, would produce a worthy winner.
"Losing in the Euros two years ago has made France a much better team, while I think Croatia are the story of this World Cup. It's incredible for a nation of 3-1/2 million and inspiring for the rest of the world. If Croatia can win the World Cup, then we will all be able to dream of doing it."
(Reporting by Mark Gleeson in Moscow; Editing by Hugh Lawson)