I wrote this back in October for World Soccer. It explains, to an extent, why it’s a season of transition for all of the bigger clubs in the Jupiler Pro League. Only Standard Liege have managed to avoid the charge of ‘under-performing’ this season and it’s likely that several of their top youngsters could move out in the summer. It’s not easy to manage a club in Belgium.
*******************************************************************************************************************While Belgium’s national team rides the crest of a wave, the country’s league teams are investing in youth with an eye to the future.
Belgium has risen to fifth place in the FIFA rankings, its highest place ever. Although questions can be asked about the validity of those rankings, it’s an undisputed fact that Marc Wilmots heads a talented Belgium squad, packed with players playing regularly in some of Europe’s biggest leagues.
This is in sharp contrast with Belgium’s first division – the Jupiler Pro League – which is probably at one of its lowest ebbs in terms of the number of players with that essential mix of quality and experience. Recent results of Belgian clubs in Europe have confirmed this trend. Of the four teams involved in this season’s Champions League and Europa League – Anderlecht, Standard Liege, Genk and Zulte Waregem – only Genk has recorded a victory in the first 12 matches played.
What’s the reason? To quote Bob Dylan, money doesn’t talk, it screams. Belgian clubs play regularly in front of small crowds and their budgets are miniscule compared to many European countries. This wasn’t always the case. In 1978, Club Brugge reached the final of the European Cup, eventually losing to Liverpool, and in the same year Anderlecht won the European Cup-Winners’ cup. Even smaller clubs used to be big in Europe with KV Mechelen winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1988 and Royal Antwerp reaching the final in 1993. Then, ironically, a Belgian by the name of Jean-Marc Bosman moved centre stage and things would never be the same again.
But this decline in the fortunes of Belgian clubs might have a silver lining. They are investing in youth to an unheard of extent. Anderlecht has the youngest squad in this season’s Champions League. Club Brugge, Genk and Standard Liege have all fielded league teams sprinkled with teenagers and others barely out of their teens.
In the mid nineties, Anderlecht decided to invest heavily in new facilities. Anderlecht directors visited academies in England, Italy, France and the Netherlands before finalising the design of the centre that houses training pitches, fitness rooms, a swimming pool and all the other things necessary to produce the next Romelu Lukaku or Vincent Kompany. The Neerpede Academy was officially opened in 2011 at a cost of £10 million.
In February, Anderlecht won the prestigious Viareggio Cup with a team that included seven long-term members of its academy. This was only the second time in 32 years that the trophy has been won by a team from outside Italy. Two months later, Nabil Jaadi was voted player of the tournament as Anderlecht also won the Aegon Future Cup in Amsterdam. Finally, in September, midfielder Youri Tielemans became the third youngest player to appear in the Champions League, aged 16 years 148 days.
Prior to Neerpede opening, Standard Liege inaugurated its impressive Robert-Louis Dreyfus Academy. This advanced facility contains a high number of grass and synthetic pitches, a hotel, medical centre, restaurant, gyms and everything else required to guarantee another Axel Witsel rolls off the stocks. Recent academy graduates in Standard’s current squad include Michy Batshuayi, Dino Arslanagic and Ibrahima Cissé.Over at Club Brugge, U21 internationals Bjorn Engels and Brandon Mechele have been regular partners in the centre of defence while Romelu Lukaku’s cousin – Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo – is waiting in the wings. Finally, at Genk, while young wingers Anthony Limbombe and Jordy Croux are getting games, a major talent is said to be U18 international Siebe Schrijvers, who recently scored his first league goal.
For many years, Belgian clubs have been priced out of buying players ready for first team football, with Anderlecht’s purchase of Partizan Belgrade’s Aleksandar Mitrovic for €5 million being an exception. As Chris Van Puyvelde, Technical Advisor to the Pro League, says, “Belgium is a transit country and it’s important to face that reality. The clubs have chosen to invest in youth rather than bring in third-rate players from other countries”.
Van Puyvelde believes players are ready to be blooded at an earlier age because the coaches are now educators in every sense of the word. Another factor, he feels, is the number of young players emerging from a mixed-ethnic background, a phenomenon happening later than in many countries. For example, Belgium’s 23-man squad at the 2002 World Cup contained just one player of mixed origins, Mbo Mpenza, while the current national team has players with roots in the Congo, Morocco, Mali and Martinique. This is a major change, similar to the one that transformed French football over a decade ago with ‘Les Bleus’.
This emphasis on coaching at a national level, investment in academies, the increased gene pool and youngsters being inspired by the success of Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Eden Hazard and others, has led to the current situation. But young players need time and for the clubs to find the right balance between youth and experience is not easy. It’s a period of transition for a Belgian league that is very much in the shadow of the national team.
Premier League clubs have not been slow to seize upon this emerging flow of talent. Anderlecht’s Head of Academy Jean Kindermans is on record as saying he deplores the number of scouts attending the clubs’ U14 games, videoing the players, talking to parents and players alike. He has a right to be concerned about the flow of extremely young talent out of Anderlecht – often under the age of 16; Chelsea signed Belgium U17 captain Charly Musonda Jr., Manchester City attracted centre back Mathias Bossaerts while Manchester United added Adnan Januzaj, who has yet to decide if he’s Belgian. Others have taken an alternative path – Dennis Praet and Tielemans for example – have chosen to make their mark in the Belgian league before venturing abroad.
Belgian clubs are being hurt both on the field and financially when clubs cherry-pick their best players before a transfer fee can be asked. The investment in youth deserves to pay off so that the league’s fortunes match those of the national team.