Belgium are currently listed as the eighth favourites to win this year’s World Cup at odds of 22/1 with Paddy Power. They are currently sitting above the likes of England, Portugal and Uruguay in the bookies as their young and talented squad have increased the expectations of the Belgian fans.
This increase in big name stars and young talent has come from a complete redevelopment of their football programme. This begans at grassroots and goes all the way up to the Begium senior side. Former Belgian technical director Michel Sablon has played a huge role in this turnaround.
Belgium were an entertaining side in the 1980’s as the small nation managed a semi-final appearance in the 1986 World Cup. It was all short-lived success as they began to slip in form in the 1990’s. Belgium failed to qualify out of their group in the 1998 World Cup and failed to impress as co-hosts of Euro 2000.
Michel Sablon told BBC Sport that the Belgian people began to lose interest in their side and something needed to change. He stated that,
“The people of Belgium began to question the team. After Euro 2000, there was a feeling of embarrassment, the relationship was not good (between the Belgian public and the national team)”.
This embarrassment inspired Sablon to make an attempt to resurrect the Belgian national side and he attempted to do so in three different stages.
The first stage of this football revolution began when Sablon and other Belgian Football Association members began to research how other countries improved their style of football. This led them to training centres in the Netherlands, France and Germany where they noticed that all youth teams were playing a fluid 4-3-3 system.
This inspired Sablon and his colleagues to make a brochure to send out to all clubs, schools and youth team coaches. The brochure demonstrated how to coach and instil this 4-3-3 formation so that all youth teams in the country would be familiar with this system.
Sablon told BBC Sport that it was not easy to get everyone to stop doing what they had grown used to. But as time went by players and coaches across the country adapted to the new system and realised that it benefited players in the long run.
The second stage of Sablon’s redevelopment of Belgian football was all about encouraging teams and coaches to focus on developing players individually and not focus on winning games at any cost. This meant that results became less important to Belgian teams and the primary focus was to improve the technique and ability of each player.
Sablon concluded that the best way to do this would be to scrap any under-7 or under-8 league tables and make the youngsters value the importance of how they play the game and focus on improving over time.
The third stage of Belgium’s football revolution was focused on instilling confidence in young players and not holding them back. They gave young players chances to prove themselves at every level. Sablon used Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany is a good example of this.
Kompany played a few games for the Belgian under-19’s. After this, he progressed to the under-21s before going straight into the senior team. Once his place in the senior side was secured the defender never went back to the youth teams even if they were involved in important fixtures.
This is an important part of the Belgian system as it makes the players focus on constantly improving their game. They know there is not an option to regress back to the youth teams. The only way is forward and the goal is to continuously improve and develop.
The Belgian government also played a huge part in creating talent for their international side as they invested millions in eight centralised football training schools. Belgian football scouts would travel around the country and recruit promising young talent to come and train in these training schools.
These schools ensured young players with potential would improve their ability and technique. They would continuously be turned into talented footballers. Players such as Napoli’s Dries Mertens, Zenit Saint Petersburg’s Axel Witsel and Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet are all successful graduate of these training schools.
There was no overnight success from these academies. They have been in place for the last decade and there has been a steady improvement in the quality and talent of the players in the Belgian side in recent years. The best example of their improvement was reflected in their dominance during their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Out of their ten qualification games, the Belgians managed eight wins and two draws which resulted in them topping the group with 26 points, nine points ahead of second placed Croatia. During this wonderful qualification campaign, Belgium managed to score eighteen goals and only conceded four goals. They also kept six clean sheets.
Belgium’s golden generation have also made sufficient impacts at club level. There has been a huge increase in the amount of Belgian players plying their trade in the best leagues in world football such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga.
The most obvious increase has come in the Premier League. In 2008, Vincent Kompany was one of the only two Belgian players in the Premier League but now there is a whopping twelve members of the Belgian World Cup squad contracted to Premier League sides.
Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet explained the reason for the increase to BBC Sport, saying;
“5 or 6 years ago, no one wanted to give a chance to a Belgian football player in England. Ever since the likes of Kompany, (Thomas) Vermaelen and (Marouane) Fellaini went over, they have shown the world that Belgian players can succeed at the top level”.
Mignolet added that this increase of Belgian players in the Premier League has improved the quality of football played by the Belgian International side as he explained that,
“Now that so many of us play at a high level, it follows on to our international duty and the international team will improve as we will have the confidence to do well for our country”.
Belgian players seem to be carrying their fine form at club level into the national side this summer. They impressed during their World Cup warm up games against Luxembourg, Sweden and Tunisia where they managed to win all three of their games, scoring eight goals and only conceding once. Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Mertens and Nacer Chadli all got on the score sheet, showing that goals are coming from a variety of sources.
The attack is good but the most impressive side of their play has to be their defence. They have a magnificent defensive record and they rarely concede. Their goalkeeper and back four in this year’s World Cup so far has been Thibaut Courtois (GK), Toby Alderweireld, Kompany, Daniel Van Buyten and Jan Vertonghen.
The golden generation continues into midfield where they fielded Axel Witsel, Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele and Wolfsburg’s Kevin de Bruyne in their World Cup opener against Algeria. Marouane Fellaini impacted on introduction in this game and another substitute, Dries Mertens, scored the winner showing that there is depth to the Belgium squad, adding to the statement that this is a golden generation.
These changes showed that all of their players are capable of fitting into their 4-3-3 system. Making changes can give them a Plan B without changing too much to their style of play. The development of the 4-3-3 system in the aforementioned schools means that players know the Belgian way to play. This was reflected in the way patience worked in their favour against Algeria.
The team did not panic while trying to break down a tough Algerian side. They trusted what they learned and got a result in the end. It was just a sign of their hard work paying off. Opposition may not have been the best but these Belgian players have been coached to play a certain style of football. They did not resort to ‘route one’, they kept with their philosophy and got a result in the end. The question is how they will far against tougher opposition.
Belgium might be outsiders in this summer’s World Cup mainly due to inexperience. They may not have impressed too much against Algeria but they should qualify from their group with their remaining fixtures being against Russia and South Korea, two sides who failed to set the world alight in their 1-1 opener.
But they have a lot of young talent and potential in their squad. 2014 may prove to be too early for the Belgians but they could be ones to watch out for in Euro 2016 or the World Cup competition in Russia in 2018.
Sarah Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.