Not too long ago, Belgium wasn’t exactly the type of team you’d look forward to watching during a World Cup.
They didn’t usually play exciting football, they didn’t field the world’s best players and you surely didn’t expect them to go far in a tournament. The World Cup in 1986 was merely an exception to the rule. As a fan, you were hoping for a few draws and maybe a victory in the group stage.
But much has changed since then. These days, Belgium have a team full of highly rated talent. Think of players such as Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. The Rode Duivels have truly developed into a team to be reckoned with.
How did this come about? What are some of the underlying reasons for Belgium's rise in eminence?
The Premier League Lads
Constitutive to today’s Rode Duivels team is the contingent of players currently playing the Premier League, including Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku. Together with an older guard consisting of players such as Daniel van Buyten and Nicolas Lombaerts, these players form the spine of a squad overflowing with talent. The experience of playing in a top league like the Premier League has surely helped shape these players into what they are today.
And because they all play in the Premier League, week in, week out, these players are used to similar kind of pace, and in general terms, a similar type of football. They’re also used to the pressure and the media scrutiny that comes with being a Premier League footballer.
In 2013, Eden Hazard told Tim Adams of Esquire:
“When we do get together, it is important we have all been immersed in the same football culture. In England, it is one country and pretty much one style of football, very intense, generally high-tempo, so we do share that. There are others who come in from [Spain’s] La Liga or elsewhere, really good players who bring different things, but the players in England do share something I think.”
The 2008 Olympics in Beijing
It’s not like the Premier League was where these players first met each other on the pitch. A lot of them were part of the so called “golden generation” that participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Thomas Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas and Mousa Dembele were all part of this group. The young Belgians lost to Nigeria in the semi-final, but not before putting in a couple of impressive performances.
Despite not getting the gold medal, the tournament must have been a formative experience for a group of young players that has stayed together for years and years. Marouane Fellaini, for example, partly earned his transfer from Standard Liege to Everton in Beijing.
In any case, playing together since such a young age has surely helped shape each individual member of Belgium’s “golden generation.”
To truly explain the foundations of Belgium’s rise to eminence, however, you need to go further back, to 2000, when failure at the Euros, co-organised by the Netherlands and Belgium, inspired the Belgians to improve.
In 2002, the Belgian football federation came up with a plan that was supposed to change the whole blueprint of Belgian football.
In 2013, former technical director of the Belgian FA Michel Sablon told Daily Mail’s Stephen McGowan:
‘‘We made a brochure. It was more of a book, in fact. We had a whole group of people around a table in the technical department and we decided to make a plan for three target groups. First of all was the clubs, secondly the national team and third the coaches of the schools. So we adopted the same vision for all three groups. We went to the clubs and asked them to play a certain way below Under-18 levels. We asked them to play 4-3-3 with wingers and three midfielders and a flat back four. In the old days, it was always a flat back three, so this was brand new to them. It took more than five or six years before everyone could bring themselves to accept it.”
A touch of luck?
If Sablon is to be believed, Belgium’s rise in the ranks is the result of a policy consciously implemented by the Belgian FA.
Undoubtedly, Sablon’s and the Belgian FA’s efforts have duly helped Belgium reach a higher level. Solid foundations and well-organised structures—at club level and on the international stage—always leave marks on the football you see on the pitch.
Yet there is something unexplainable about Belgium’s current generation of wonderkids. For some reason, the suspicion is that the rise of players like Eden Hazard can not simply be explained by looking at policy and circumstance.
The Netherlands had Johan Cruyff in the 1970s. Argentina had Maradona in the 1980s. In the 1990s, France had Zinedine Zidane. Belgium, however, has never produced a player of such exceptional talent.
Sure, it takes good coaches and good youth policy to train and educate such players. But you also need luck. The likes of Maradona and Zidane are rare. They’re exceptions, almost supernatural beings. The same holds true for exceptional generations of players.
The squad the Rode Duivels will present to the world in Brazil is exceptional. The Belgians, and fans of football with them, can count themselves lucky.