With the Belgium national team due to arrive in Luton tomorrow, ahead of their friendly match at Wembley on Saturday, and with Marouane Fellaini telling reporters that everyone in England is talking about Belgium, it’s time to answer the question – where did this talented group of players come from?
A couple of years ago, Times journalist Gabriele Marcotti suggested putting a little money on Belgium for the 2014 World Cup. Since then, the players have kept rolling off the production line; clubs like Chelsea are buying Belgians quicker than you can say Jean-Claude Van Damme.
The talent is undeniable: Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Eden Hazard are becoming household names. In the season just ended, Kompany was voted Premier League Player of the Year, Hazard was once again Ligue 1 Player of the year; Jan Vertonghen won the same award in the Eredivisie, as did Kevin Mirallas in the Greek league. Over in Russia, Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts was awarded the title of ‘Best Foreign Player’ while in Italy, Bologna’s Jean-Francois Gillet was elected best keeper in Serie A.
The question that many ask is how can a country that has not qualified for a major competition since 2002 suddenly have so many top players. Admittedly, Belgium reached the semi-finals of the Olympics in 2008, but only five or six of that squad are still playing international football.
The answer is not easy to formulate. If the backgrounds of the players in the ‘New Belgium’ squad are examined, the first thing you notice is the high number who have been developed – in football terms – outside the country. The biggest influence has been the Eredivisie, as Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Dries Mertens, Nacer Chadli, Moussa Dembélé and Toby Alderweireld have all paid their dues in the Dutch division; they have never or hardly ever having played senior football in Belgium; Mertens played a few games for Eendracht Aalst and Dembélé turned out occasionally for Beerschot.
Digging in the data a little more shows that remarkably, the Beerschot club has been the one with the most influence on the national squad: Vermaelen, Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Dembélé were all on Beerschot’s books as juniors, as was Radja Nainggolan who has broken through at Cagliari and is now in the Belgian squad. Beerschot acted for a while as a feeder club for Ajax which can explain why so many Belgians moved to the Dutch champions.
Then there is the French influence, with Eden, Thorgan and Kylian Hazard all being sent to Belgium’s close neighbours to improve their sporting prowess. Given those facts, it’s clear that the Belgian FA has never drawn up a blueprint for success. Indeed, that organisation does not have a great reputation as it generally seems to follow events rather than set down a path to be followed.
It’s to be hoped that Steven Martens, late of the English Lawn Tennis Federation, and now the Belgian FA General Secretary can introduce an element of professionalism into the organisation. Philippe Collin is the power behind the throne. He’s the cousin of Anderlecht President Roger Vanden Stock and as well as being the Brussels club’s General Secretary, he’s also on the board of the Jupiler Pro League and is a Belgian FA Vice President. Not only that, he is also responsible for finding a replacement for the departed Georges Leekens.
This double-hatting of Collin is a good example of the power that Anderlecht holds over football in Belgium. It can never be fully determined who Collin is representing – Anderlecht or the national team – when he goes about his business. Indeed, many people will be pleased that Anderlecht appointed a new coach a few days ago, while the national post is still vacant.
Champions Anderlecht, together with Standard Liege, have the two most developed academies in Belgium. Kompany and Romelu Lukaku have been the two successes from the Neerpede Academy, although the latter has not exactly fulfilled his earlier promise. Over in Liege, Axel Witsel has been the one major success, while Fellaini arrived at Sclessin after periods as a junior at several clubs including Anderlecht and Charleroi. That leaves Genk who produced Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne, not forgetting KV Mechelen who were developing Steven Defour, David Hubert and Marvin Ogunjimi when they were hit by bankruptcy and all three moved over to the same Genk club. Defour of course later walked out on Genk, where he was captain, and joined Standard Liege.
Basically this shows the lack of a pattern in the development of young players. The Belgian FA lacks money and that is not going to change soon. Clubs like Anderlecht and Standard Liege are doing their best to develop a youth policy and keep their players – Dennis Praet, 18 and initially developed at Genk, is reportedly on 800,000 euros a year, before he starts a game for the first team. The next two-three years will be interesting. The best players will continue to go abroad – many at the age of 15 – and that does not bode well for the Jupiler League. Somehow though, the young Belgians keep on coming through and many of the juniors now emerging are of African origin – like Fellaini, Dembélé and Lukaku. That’s partly due to Belgium’s colonial past and partly due to the multicultural nature of Belgium’s larger cities. And that’s a future that is not going to change…