Eden Hazard, Christian Benteke and Marouane Fellaini have ensured the Belgians are back – but was it down to luck or good planning?
With their players dominating the Premier League landscape, Glenn Moore asks what the Red Devils have been doing right
It may be fortunate for Greg Dyke that Belgium are playing on the other side of Hadrian's Wall this weekend. While the Football Association chairman was lamenting England's failure to produce talented footballers, and announcing a commission of inquiry as to the cause and solution, Scotland were preparing to host a team that appears to render his investigation irrelevant.
Belgium are the rising force in international football with an outstanding crop of young players, several of whom are keeping English footballers out of the game. The seven biggest teams in the Premier League all have at least one key player who is Belgian and only Mesut Ozil cost more on deadline day than Marouane Fellaini. The Belgian influx is dramatic enough to be the subject of an article in Esquire this month and their English-based players are the backbone of a team that, this weekend, can move within a point of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. It would be their first qualification since 2002.
How have they done it? Surely there must have been, as in Germany, a root-and-branch reform of player development and a plan put in place, as the FA have already embarked upon in England, and Dyke wishes to take to the next level. Well, not really. It is, one Belgian official has confided, largely down to "luck".
To start with many players developed in other countries. The Hazard brothers, Eden and Thorgen, were sent to Lille's renowned academy in France. Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli of Spurs, Arsenal's Thomas Vermaelen, new Atletico Madrid recruit Toby Alderweireld and Napoli's Dries Mertens learned much of their trade in the Netherlands. One caveat: several of these players were originally at Belgian club Beerschot, which at one stage acted as a feeder club for Ajax and went bankrupt during the summer.
The larger Belgian clubs Anderlecht and Standard Liège did produce some players, as have Genk, but outfits of that size, who cherry-pick across the nation, ought to come up with a player or two every now and then.
However, there are elements of Belgium's rise that do tally with Dyke's philosophy. A decade ago the Belgian FA delivered a blueprint to clubs on player development which, according to their FA, most have followed. The FA demanded better coaching qualifications and, presumably influenced by the Dutch, determined that national sides at all age-groups should play a high-tempo 4-3-3.
They also pressed, as will Dyke, for improved player release for junior tournaments. This led to a place in the last four of both the European Under-17 finals and Under-21 finals in 2007, and another semi-final with an Under-23 team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It has long been the view of the FA that tournament experience at a young age is hugely beneficial to players development. Many of the current stars were in these teams. In Belgium's case it also helps the national side bond. Fellaini told Esquire: "We have played together for a long time. A lot of us went to the Olympics in Beijing, stayed together in the village, when we were 18, 19, 20, 21, so we got to know each other very well."
This was important because Belgium is a divided country. There is little love between French-speaking Wallonia in the south and Dutch-leaning, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north. So powerful a force is separatism, an interim prime minister was forced to rule for 18 months after the 2010 elections failed to produce a functioning coalition. At one time these divisions appeared to infect the squad but now there seems to be unity with the captain, Vincent Kompany, the glue. Kompany, said coach Marc Wilmots, "brings together the Flemish and the Walloons. [For him] this is a national political engagement. He is a patriot."
Kompany, who speaks Flemish and French, told World Soccer: "This is our country and it would be ridiculous to stand for anything but unity. What we do is show the good of our country and the potential rather than focus on the differences there might be."
It is not coincidental that Kompany is a product of Belgium's post-colonial immigration having, like Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku, Congolese roots. Steven Martens, the chief executive of the Belgian FA (and ex-player director of Britain's Lawn Tennis Association), said recently, "The players [whose families are] from Congo or Morocco [Fellaini and Chadli] are to the benefit of the team because it means that the dualistic French-Flemish speaking matter is less of an issue. We don't see any signs of little clans appearing [in the squad] because it's a well-bonded, outspoken group. They are symbolic of unity in the country."
This is not Belgium's first Golden Era. In the 1980s, under chain-smoking patrician boss Guy Thys, Belgium were one of the strongest teams in Europe. Built around goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff, right-back Eric Gerets, midfielder Jan Ceulemans, and the playmakers Wilfried van Moer and his successor Enzo Scifo, they reached the 1980 European Championship final in Italy, and the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Thirty years on Belgium are back. The cycle has come round again. A happy coalescence of circumstances has produced a clutch of fine players at the same time just as happened to Hungary in the 1950s and Poland in the 1970s. But luck is not a reliable basis for successful youth development, not for a country with the wealth and aspirations of England. Dyke's commission will have to look elsewhere for lessons.
Famous Belgians? Premier League roll call
Arsenal Thomas Vermaelen
Aston Villa Christian Benteke
Chelsea Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, *Romelu Lukaku, **Thibault Courtois, ***Thorgan Hazard
Everton Kevin Mirallas
Liverpool Simon Mignolet
Manchester City Vincent Kompany, Dedryk Boyata
Manchester United Marouane Fellaini, ****Marnick Vermijl
Tottenham Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé, Nacer Chadli
*on loan to Everton; **on loan to Atletico Madrid; ***on loan to Zulte Waregem; ****on loan to NEC
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