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.
BELGIUM: Group H team profile
BELGIUM: Group H team profile
1/5 How they qualified
Perhaps the most interesting team in this year’s World Cup, Belgium qualified in dominating fashion as they laid a national record of seven straight qualifying wins whilst remaining undefeated. The only shortcomings were two meagre draws against Croatia and Wales but Serbia, Scotland and FYROM could not stop them. Eventually, Belgium finished nine points ahead of second place. Their powerful and disciplined displays led to the team scoring 18 goals and conceding only four in the entire round which resulted in eight wins out of ten matches. The lion share of their success is due to the fact that the team is a very physically imposing side that cannot be outperformed when it comes to strength.
Marc Wilmots got a group of very talented players on the same page and showed them how to get the best out of any other side through a patient, defensive and disciplined manner. He is fortunate enough to have a number of attacking players on his disposal that could come handy at any given moment.
3/5 Star Player
Talent is flowing through the Belgium national squad but it is Eden Hazard that has proven that his presence in the front line is key. The 23-year-old is an incredible technician with explosive pace as well as fantastic passing and dribbling skills. This season, he proved to be Chelsea’s main playmaker by becoming the Blues’ top scorer with 14 goals and seven assists. He will be an invaluable member for his team in Brazil.
4/5 Emerging Talent
Adnan Januzaj is the most promising young talent at Manchester United and much is expected from him and his country this summer at Brazil. The 19-year-old had a very impressive season with the Red Devils, picking up four goals and three assists in 27 matches.
5/5 How they line up: (4-2-3-1)
Courtois; Vertonghen, Kompany, Van Buyten, Alderweireld; Fellaini, Witsel; Mirallas, De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku.
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.