England must beware brilliant Belgium
They may have missed out on the Euros but the Belgians have a rash of young players who, thanks to the unifying skills of their coach, look to have a bright future
The very term Golden Generation should be enough to alarm those who follow English football. For a decade, a coveted and 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 own lot rising dramatically. For them the crop is rich and perhaps alarming, given the paucity of genuine, world-class talent these shores now produce.
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. English football has nothing to compare to the fervour created by a 21-year-old. In the squad that faced Norway last weekend, the only 21-year-old forward was Danny Welbeck. It is hard to imagine Chelsea or Manchester City becoming quite so interested if the Manchester United forward came on to the market.
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.
It says something when 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 keeper Simon Mignolet (23). Then there is Arsenal's defender Thomas Vermaelen (26), in front of them the likes of 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 the likes of Fulham's Moussa Dembele (24) and Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku (19). These are players yet to reach their prime catching attention throughout Europe.
But how has such a huge crop of talent emerged all at once? More by chance than design; not for the Belgium Football Federation the kind of long overdue coaching revamp that was being heralded in this country this week. Instead, they have largely let the clubs sort it out.
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.
At Genk, they have similarly looked to youth, to offer opportunity to those good enough, regardless of age, and some of the squad who will take to 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, who has been handed the caretaker role, having worked as Leekens' No 2. Wilmots was capped 70 times for his country between 1990 until their last major finals in South Korea and Japan, when he captained the side. That he may be given the role on a permanent basis because he will not stretch the BFF's finances says much. Wilmots is well liked among the players and his brief flirtation with politics (he was voted into the Belgian Senate as a member of the Mouvement Reformateur) is perhaps more significant in a country that has two major languages. Tellingly, the Standard Liège website has a choice of language on its main page: French or Dutch. Of Belgium's 11 million inhabitants, around 60 per cent are Flemish (who speak Dutch) and the remainder are mainly the Walloons, who speak French (plus a small smattering of German speakers). Wilmots is a Belgian patriot, rather than a Walloon or a Flemish one. Leekens, who is Flemish, was seen as more confrontational to the French speakers, and occasionally fell out with the likes of Hazard.
Among Wilmots' tasks, should he land the role permanently, will be to bring some reality into the Belgium dressing room. Two years ago the national team's medical staff resigned because of the attitude of the players.
For the likes of Mignolet, who has shown what can be done with the correct attitude since he moved to Sunderland last summer, an opportunity has arisen for a young side that should not be missed.
"We have a really decent team, a really decent squad," he says. "The problem for us has been that we've not converted all that talent into results. We should have qualified for the Euros with all the quality we have, but we didn't. However, hopefully we can kick on and make sure we qualify for the World Cup.
"The England game is an important one for us to help prepare for that campaign. We have not managed to qualify for the big tournaments for 10 years, which is disappointing because we should really have done that with the players we have, but things have changed and for the better. We have a lot of good, young players right now and that's what football is about.
"These days you need to start playing first-team football at a younger age, and all our guys play big competitions with the clubs. England is a big game for us and we're taking it seriously. It's the one we have been looking forward to before the break. It's a massive game for England as well. It will be their last before the Euros, and under a new manager, so all of the players will be trying to show they deserve to be in the team. They will be up for it and so will we.
"For us, it will be about preparation for the qualifiers in September. We want to make sure we qualify for the World Cup in 2014. It will be a good match for us to help our preparation."
And education, for a side to watch out for.
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