Belgium enjoys the golden boys

They missed out on the Euros but they have a rich crop of young, brilliant players with a bright future. Martin Hardy reports

The very term Golden Generation should be enough to alarm those who follow English football. For a decade, a coveted, cosseted group of players failed to take England to the promised land. Perhaps fittingly, in an age of austerity, Roy Hodgson will be expected to work miracles with much less. The previous failures may yet help, given the lessening of expectations, and in a strange twist, it is Saturday's opponents, Belgium, who find their lot rising dramatically. Their crop is rich and perhaps alarming, given the paucity of world-class talent England now produces.

Eden Hazard sparked the kind of transfer scramble among the Premier League's three richest clubs that perhaps only Wayne Rooney could match, but then Hazard is only 21. Rooney, upon whom the hopes of a nation have been placed even more given Hodgson's desire to mould his team around him and his favoured No 10 position, is 26.

The potential rise of Belgian football – and they have not qualified for Euro 2012, or any major tournament since the 2002 World Cup – does not solely revolve around a player who could be the most expensive transfer of the summer when he completes his £40m move to Stamford Bridge. Perhaps in contrast to what Hodgson will take to Poland and Ukraine next week, Belgium have both strength and depth.

Vincent Kompany, the rock upon whom Roberto Mancini built a title-winning team, is not even the captain of his country. That honour goes to Jan Vertonghen, the 25-year-old central defender at Ajax who is being chased by Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal. Behind them is a choice of the 20-year-old Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who has spent a year on loan at Atletico Madrid, the Europa League winners, or Sunderland's first-choice, Simon Mignolet (23). Then there is Arsenal's defender Thomas Vermaelen (26), in front of them Everton's Marouaune Fellaini (24), Benfica's Axel Witsel (23) and Porto's Steven Defour (24).

Hazard is not the only Belgian to catch Sir Alex Ferguson's eye. Defour received a get-well telegram from the Manchester United manager when he damaged his foot a couple of years ago and Witsel has also been watched. Then there are Fulham's Moussa Dembélé (24) and Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku (19). These players yet to reach their prime are catching attention throughout Europe.

But how has such a huge crop of talent emerged all at once? More by chance than design.

Standard Liège invested heavily in their academy, where the Belgian national side have been based this week in preparation for Saturday's visit to Wembley. In total, they spent €18m (£14.4m), more than many Premier League sides, to harness young talent. It has worked: when Fellaini emerged through their younger sides and caught the eye of the Everton manager, David Moyes, they were paid £15m (pretty much the price of their academy) to let him move to England. When Witsel came to the fore as a dynamic midfielder and attracted interest from Portugal, it cost Benfica a fee of around €8m to secure his services.

Genk have similarly looked to youth, to offer opportunity to those good enough, regardless of age, and some of the squad who will take the field on Saturday have played in Belgium only briefly.

Of course, as England found to their cost, not everything that glitters is actually gold. Georges Leekens, the manager who was supposed to finish above Germany and Turkey in qualifying for Euro 2012 (obviously he did not) resigned on 13 May to take over at Club Brugge KV. A lack of balance in his squad (no full-backs and no world-class goalscorer) was seen as crucial.

His replacement, at least in the short term, is the 43-year-old Marc Wilmots (left), who has been handed the caretaker role, having worked as Leekens' No 2.

Wilmots was capped 70 times for his country from 1990 until their last major finals in South Korea and Japan. He may be given the role on a permanent basis simply because he will not stretch the BFF's finances.