World Cup 2014: The myth about Belgium's 'golden generation'

Numerous top players have emerged at the same time for Belgium and consequently many are backing them to go far in the World Cup. But how did they end up with such a talented group of players?

The most heavily backed of dark horses canters into the World Cup arena on Tuesday night when Belgium take on Algeria in Belo Horizonte. From absentees to contenders in four years, it is quite a transformation and the Belgian FA are understandably keen to take the credit for it.

Michael Sablon, their former technical director, has been quoted extensively in the English media describing how his masterplan helped produce this ‘golden generation’. However, before our FA are told to rush to Brussels, notebook in hand, the dates do not add up. The truth may well be that the Belgian have in large part got lucky, aided by societal and geographical factors.


Sablon’s ‘vision', which involves some widely practiced aspects also adopted here, such as small-sided games, increased contact time and no league tables for under 8s, but also a prescriptive Dutch-style 4-3-3 playing system and centralised coaching schools, was published in 2006. Since it is widely accepted the years from 6-11 are key to the technical development of players that would mean its graduates would now be 14-18. None of Marc Wilmots’ squad are in that age range.

Several players at the World Cup did go through the coaching schools, and will have benefited, in their teenage years, from the other changes. But of the current squad only six were under 16 in 2006: Thibault Courtois (14 during 2006), Kevin De Bruyne (15), Romelu Lukaku (13), Eden Hazard (15), Divock Origi (11) and Adnan Januzaj (11). Eight of Roy Hodgson’s England squad were under 16 on New Year’s Day 2006, so maybe the geniuses are at England’s FA.

There are three factors which appear to have been at least as influential as anything the Belgian FA did. Most important a significant number had much of their professional football education elsewhere. In 2006 Belgium’s best player, Hazard, was already across the border in France having joined Lille at 14. Origi went there aged 15, Kevin Mirallas at 16. The Netherlands was the main destination - Dutchman Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who managed Royal Antwerp last season, told The Independent Dutch coaches were way ahead of their Belgian counterparts who were 'too defensive'. Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghan, Moussa Dembele and Nacer Chadli and Toby Alderweireld were all playing there by the time they were 16, mostly at Ajax. Meanwhile Januzaj went to Manchester United at 16.

Nine players are the sons of immigrant families. Januzaj, Dembele, Lukaku, Chadli, Origi, Marouane Fellaini, Vincent Kompany, Anthony Vanden Borre and Axel Witsel all had at least one parent born outside Belgium. These ‘new Belgians’ a former divide between the French-speaking south and Flemish-speaking north. There is also genetics. Four of the current squad had fathers who were professional footballers: Hazard, Origi, Lukaku and Fellaini.

Who does that leave? How about Thibault Courtois and Dries Martens, both identified as players who developed in the coaching schools. Courtois did not play for a Belgian age-group team until the U-18s, and has been on Chelsea’s books since he was 19. Martens was stuck in the Dutch second division at the age of 22 having been released by Anderlecht and Gent without playing a match.

Then there is an advantage the Belgian FA have which the English FA – despite Greg Dyke’s attempts – can never replicate. Because promising young Belgian players are picked off early by foreign clubs youngsters have to fill the gaps, so getting priceless first team exposure. They then develop their game and confidence further at bigger clubs elsewhere (of the World Cup squad only three play in Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League, the third goalkeeper and two back-up defenders).

There will have been players whose development has been enhanced by the Belgian FA’s improvements, and an insistence on clubs releasing players for youth tournaments has paid off, but to suggest they have created a golden generation is a fantasy. What may yet happen is that the blueprint designed by Sablon, who retired in 2012, ensures this windfall crop is augmented by a regular flow of young players and, instead of fading like the generation that reached the 1980 European Championship final and 1986 World Cup semi-final, Belgium becomes an established force like their Dutch neighbours. But we will not know that for another ten years.

Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own