Belgium has a decent soccer history, qualifying for 11 World Cups and 4 European Championships, but they have never really set the world on fire, being more of a strong second-tier team, rarely in the running for major tournaments but never easy to beat. Their golden era was during the 1980’s when they finished runners-up at Euro 80 and fourth in the 1986 World Cup.
Since then Belgium has all but vanished off the soccer radar languishing in the
doldrums, and it has been over ten years since they last qualified for a major tournament. But all of a sudden the current Belgium team is capturing the attention of soccer pundits and fans worldwide, and many see them as potential dark horses for the World Cup in Brazil in two years time.
I actually discovered the Belgium talent by accident. It was over a year ago when I was playing the latest instalment of the FIFA series with a friend. We
randomly chose our teams. To my friend’s delight he was gifted Brazil, whilst fate handed me Belgium. To my surprise, familiar EPL names like Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini were all Belgian, while the stats of less familiar names such as, Eden Hazard, Axel Witsel and Jan Vertonghen were also very impressive. Needless to say, the game went better than I had anticipated.
Fast-forward to the present day and the stock of Belgium soccer could not be any higher with two of the biggest transfers this year involving Belgian players: Eden Hazard to Chelsea for $51m and Axel Witsel to Zenit Saint Petersburg for $51m.
EPL clubs currently employ an all-time high of 16 Belgian players, and during a recent World Cup qualifier against Serbia, nine of the eleven players that started for Belgium were affiliated with EPL clubs.
Chelsea has the most to gain from the Belgian boom and next season could potentially field four Belgians in their starting line-up, with winger Kevin de Bruyne (Weder Bremen), goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (Athletico Madrid) and striker Romelu Lukaku (West Brom) joining new signing Hazard at Stamford bridge next year after enjoying productive loan spells elsewhere. The forward has made an immediate impact to his career at Chelsea and already looks like the finished article at just 21 years of age. But Hazard is not the only young talented player in the team, in fact, Belgium is perhaps the most exciting young team in the world at present—in their most recent World Cup qualifier against Scotland they fielded a starting eleven with an average age of just 23.
So where has all the talent come from and what is its cause? Is it the product of an increased commitment to youth development by Belgium? Standard Liège has invested $24m in their academy and have been producing talents such as Fellaini and Witsel. But the bulk of this current prize crop received their soccer education outside Belgium, moving to Holland and France in their early teens. So it seems this surplus of Belgian talent may just be a generational oddity, but either way Belgium will be hoping to cash in on it.
However, talent alone does not guarantee success in any field, especially not soccer, and after failing to qualify for last summer’s Euros some suggested Belgium’s bunch of exceptionally talented players had attitudes that were just as exceptionally bad. Last year during a Euro qualifying match with Turkey, Hazard was substituted and then photographed outside the stadium eating a hamburger with his father Thierry, even though the game was still in progress. Then Belgium Coach Georges Leekens
announced Hazard would receive a three-game suspension, though it was later revoked and he was recalled.
Leekens has since left and Marc Wilnot has taken over the reins and steadied the ship. The growing stature of Belgium’s more experienced players such as Kompany and Vermaelen, both captains of their respective club teams, as well of the experience gained during their failed campaign to qualify for the Euros has helped to guide the younger players.
Belgium currently sit at the top of their qualifying group level on points with Croatia, and a 0-3 away win in Belgrade was a strong signal that perhaps this great collection of players may soon become a great team. Belgium still do have a long way to go, and they will have to qualify for the World Cup before they can even be considered an outside bet for the World Cup in Brazil, but the future does look bright.
IMAGES BY GETTY