In 2012 Belgium failed to qualify for the European Championships , their third successive absence from the tournament after having missed out in 2004 and in 2008, they had also not played at the 2006 and 2010 world cups. The last major tournament they participated before the 2014 World Cup was the 2002 world cup. Back in 2012 few would have predicted that Belgium would have a production line of young talented players waiting to be given a chance to shine. They enter the Euros as the highest ranked European team ranked number 2 in the world after having spent most of the past year on the top of the rankings.
In 2008, the Premier League had only two Belgian players- a young Marouane Fellaini and an inconsistent Vincent Kompany. Now there are more than 12 Belgian Internationals spread across the premier league and all of them are proven match winners.
How did a country with a population of only about 11 million and just 34 professional clubs spread over two divisions, manage to do that?
The revolution began in 1998 after another disappointing exit from the world cup. The Belgian Football federation decided to improve their youth system to spur players for the future. As part of the plan many government funded football schools were launched all over the country over the next few years along with other changes.
All the youth teams all over the world aim on winning the tournament in which they participate , Michael Sabon the technical director of Belgian Football instructed all the youth teams not aim on winning games , but to develop and improve the players.
Another interesting rule in Belgium is that if a player represents a team , he cannot play in a team below that age level. For example, Adnan Januzaj who is eligible to play in the U21 side will not be picked in the U21’s because he has played for the senior side , this will give opportunities for more and more younger players.
This investment combined with some good luck and good coaching resulted producing stars like Thibaut courtois , Toby Alderweireld , Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. Their golden generation.
Belgium are placed in what arguably is the group of death alongside Sweden , Italy and Republic of Ireland and kick off their tournament against 4 time world champions Italy. It is definitely a tough group to be in but it is about time that theses young crop of players start to play as a team.
Manager Marc Wilmots has done a tremendous job since taking over in 2012 has had a huge part in developing the squad , a run which saw them top the FIFA rankings and even though Wilmots is spoiled with choices at every position his team was far from convincing at the 2014 World cup and showed similar stutters in qualifying.
England’s golden generation of the Neville brothers , David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard , Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Michael Owen always failed to play as a team and never really achieved the greatness that was expected of them. Same has been the case with Argentina’s golden generation and although they have reached two successive finals, they failed to deliver on the big stage. Maybe they can redeem themselves at the ongoing Copa America.
What Belgium’s golden generation needs to learn from theses two is that even if you have star players playing at every position on the park, you need to learn how to play as a team. Even in the friendly’s leading up to France, Belgium labored through the wins against Switzerland and Norway.
They need to play convincing football and show the world why they are considered such a dominant force on paper and maybe at the end of the tournament we’ll have a rightful successor to Spain’s throne in Belgium.