Those were the words that Belgium’s coach George Leekens uttered after his team’s 4-4 draw with Austria. At the end of the game, the Austrian fans and squad members erupted with joy. The Belgians were stunned. They had gone from losing to winning and back to being all-square – all in the last four minutes of the match.
The initial reaction, from a Belgian viewpoint, was one of despair. The team had defended dreadfully and once again failed to live up to expectations. Down to 62nd in the FIFA rankings – above Uganda but below Iran – the days when the “Diables Rouges” reached the World Cup semi-finals are long gone. A couple of days on, however, the future does not seem that bad. A look at the squad that faced Austria reveals that 12 of the players were aged 24 or younger. Add to that two other players in the same age bracket, Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen and Fulham’s Moussa Démbéle – both injured – and there has to be some room for hope.
One problem is that several of the squad, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, Everton’s Marouane Fellaini, Vermaelen, and indeed Démbéle, have all achieved big money transfers to the Premiership. That has led to greater expectations, perhaps of another ‘golden’ generation, and accusations that playing for Belgium is no longer so important in the greater scheme of things. The generation may indeed look golden but appearances can be deceptive. Get a bit closer, and it’s obvious that we’re talking about young men – many of whom are not that experienced – who need time to show their potential as a team. Of the 14 youngsters who have not yet reached their mid-twenties, three are teenagers: Anderlecht’s Romelu Lukaku (17), Lille’s Eden Hazard (19) and Manchester City’s Dedryck Boyota (also 19).
Lukaku – the leading goal scorer in Belgium last year – has looked out of sorts so far this season, undoubtedly due to the pressure of being the future of club and country at such a young age. The recent arrival in the national squad of Marvin Ogunjimi (22) and Jelle Vossen (21) – both with league leaders Racing Genk – will be a relief for Leekens and possibly for Lukaku himself. The Anderlecht striker has been described as the next Didier Drogba and that kind of talk always spells trouble.
Eden Hazard is another who has come in for too much praise at a young age – some observers have already mentioned him alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Twice elected young player of the year in France, the boy has talent but Leekens left him out of the team – and off the bench – for the match with Kazakhstan. Hazard was accused of being lazy and not showing the right attitude. That might just give him the message he needs, but let’s not forget that he’s still a teenager! And on that subject, Eden thinks that his younger brother, Thorgen (17), coming through the ranks at Lens, is the better player of the two.
Add to that mix, the Standard Liege duo of Steven Defour and Axel Witsel – both of whom are just coming back from major setbacks – and the balance sheet is positive. Defour is an incredibly mature 22 year-old, having been captain at his club since he was 19. So is the future bright? Certainly, and the spirit in the national squad is the best it has been for some years. The reign of Dick Advocaat was brief and ended in shame for both the coach and the – weak – Belgian football association. With Leekens and Marc Wilmots at the helm, there seems to be a vibrancy that has been missing for years. Kompany seems to be emerging as the team’s leader and spokesperson and it’s a role he is eminently suited to fill. The results have not come yet but the players just need time. It might be too late for the team to qualify for the 2012 European championships but the 2014 World Cup could be the time when the Grand Place in Brussels once again welcomes back some footballing heroes.
That may be wishful thinking, but even reaching the World Cup finals in Brazil would be a great boost for a country that has not had the luxury of a government for the past four months.