All in the name of black, yellow and red.
That’s what will be top of mind for Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku when they lead their country, Belgium—the No. 3-ranked team in the world, according to FIFA—out onto the pitch at this year’s World Cup. The two larger-than-life superstars are tasked with finding a way to deliver on a mountain of hype, and the hopes of a nation. There are multiple ways to win any World Cup. But a team can only make a finite amount of mistakes. The Belgian national team has found this out firsthand—most recently in 2014, when it lost to Argentina in the quarterfinals.
But this time, the national team’s destiny feels different. Both of its stars are in their prime. Hazard, the diminutive (5’8”), French-speaking wunderkind, has become a silent assassin on the pitch and one of the best in the world. Lukaku, the big, flamboyant, Belgian-born son of Congolese parents, has gained international acclaim for what he can do with the ball at his feet. He’s hammered home enough goals in the last few seasons for people to call him the “new Drogba.”
Many see Lukaku and Hazard as the keys to winning the Cup. But not just Romelu and Eden. Both are part of sets of footballing brothers. Romelu’s sibling Jordan plays for Italian club Lazio and the national team (he’s also a staple on Romelu’s Instagram). And there is another Hazard, Thorgan, in Germany at Borussia Monchengladbach. (Eden has two more younger brothers: Kylian, on Chelsea’s developmental team, and Ethan, who is still in school.) The Belgians featured this dynamic tandem of familial dual threats through the European qualifiers. (Jordan missed the final cut when the roster was announced earlier this month.) They are also joined by other top-caliber European talent, including Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne—players who left home for bigger clubs and more money.
So how did Belgium become such a powerhouse? The country only boasts a population of roughly 11 million. The answer to that lies in the individual wills of two of the greatest football talents the country has ever seen. But it also lies in the will of a country that had the courage to fix a system in need of repair. Because you don’t get dual Hazards and Lukakus—and a brilliant cadre of Belgian footballers all playing for their nation, peaking at the right time—without a determined effort to invest in the future.
The system wasn’t working.
By 2000, the Belgian national team had been stuck in a rut in international play for years. It had been two decades since its runner-up finish in the 1980 UEFA European Football Championship. The team’s best finish in the World Cup—fourth place—was in 1986. In its two most recent showings, the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, the team failed to progress beyond the first rounds.
The problem was that there were limited options for young players to develop and funnel up into the elite ranks. Additionally, football was becoming an increasingly international sport, and wages abroad had started to dwarf those available in Belgian competitions, sucking talent outside the country. This went for kids with even the most impressive football pedigrees, like Hazard, who in time would make his ascent through the ranks across the border in France. This might also have been the route for Lukaku, also a player with a strong football lineage, had his country not done some deep introspection.
After the 2000 debacle, the Royal Belgian Football Association convened a working group to devise a plan to return the country to football prominence. Among those involved were Michel Sablon, then the technical director, and Werner Helsen, a former footballer-turned-sports scientist at the Catholic University in Leuven, just outside Brussels. Helsen was the first academic to apply the 10,000-hour rule, made popular by Malcolm Gladwell, to sports. Performance, he found, was linked to the number of practice hours. At the time, teenage footballers in Belgium practiced four or five times per week. (Games were often played on the weekend, which amounted to some 12 hours per week.) It wasn’t enough, Helsen thought. “We need to double the amount of practise,” he said.
They worked to establish “Top Sports Schools” across the country, where flexible curricula allowed students, beginning at age 13, to train for three hours every morning except Wednesdays. “The football training is integrated in the school plan, which means that these students can have a normal graduation,” Helsen said. Players would meet the threshold of 20 weekly hours—school and club commitments included—that Helsen believed was required for success. The schools would incubate a number of the current national stars, including De Bruyne and Napoli striker Dries Mertens, who attended Genk and Leuven, respectively.
There were other reforms, too. Training would concentrate on small-sided games, five-a-side and eight-a-side, and one-versus-one drills that would improve technical skills, like dribbling. Coaches would not limit touches. They mandated a 4-3-3 formation with three strikers, to make players more comfortable with maintaining possession. The epicenter of Belgian football moved to Tubize, on the outskirts of Brussels, where a new national football centre was built. Aspiring coaches could take entry-level coaching courses for free.
But perhaps the most meaningful reform was the introduction of programs to ensure players were receiving additional academic support to match the education they received on the pitch. Nationwide, there were the Top Sport Schools. But Anderlecht also established its own bespoke school collaboration, called the Purple Talents Project. This is where Lukaku would build the solid foundation that helped launch his career at home.
Lukaku was a precocious teen. He had the developed physique of a grown man. “You saw normal players and then you saw a big, young African player who was 15 or 20 centimeters bigger than all the rest,” Jean Kindermans, the technical director for youth development at Anderlecht, says of the first time he saw Lukaku. He also was the son of a former Congolese journeyman striker, Roger. Football was in his blood.
But he was rough in his skills. “He wanted to get better and he knew his size wouldn’t always make a difference,” remembers Yannick Ferrera, another youth coach at Anderlecht at the time. “Always open, always listening to the people giving him advice.”
They focused on Lukaku’s technical abilities: touches, possession, dribbling. The young striker made his training into a game on occasion. One time, he bet how many times he would score in the coming season. Ludo Vandeweyer, who would pick up the young player at 7 a.m. and drive him to training, recalls the tallies in early years being as high as 30 or 50 goals.
The staff at Anderlecht kept close tabs on their prodigy. Peter Smeets, a mentor to Lukaku and former teacher, would record his protege’s aspirations in a paper diary (smartphones weren’t as ubiquitous then). Some of the goals were a bit hubristic. In 2008, Lukaku told Bob Browaeys, now coach of the Belgian under-16 national side, that he hoped to play in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa at age 17.
“We said, as staff members, ‘He’s a little bit crazy in his head,’” Browaeys recalls.
Belgium failed to qualify for the tournament. But, in the following years, Lukaku made the national squad and made good on his aspirations to take his unworldly skill set international.
Hazard, meanwhile, had left Belgium for a foreign school-club system at Lille in France. There, he immediately turned heads with his upside. “I’d never seen a player with a talent like him at that age,” says Alain Wallyn, a youth coach at Lille, remembering when he first caught a glimpse of Hazard.
That he was coming from a family of footballers probably helped. His mother, Carine, was a striker in the Belgian Women's First Division. His father, Thierry, was a defensive midfielder with La Louviere in the Belgian Second Division. Eden showed so much promise that his coaches had to find inventive ways to challenge him. “If Eden is not challenged, it becomes too easy for him, he’s not interested anymore, you have to push him a bit,” Wallyn remembered.
Before long, after he won an under-15 championship with Lille, Hazard inked a modest contract for around €500 per month. Although several other clubs were already interested in Hazard, the youngster was happy to stay put. “Don’t you worry,” the teenager remarked. “If I’m really good, I will earn money later.”
Lukaku’s arrival at Chelsea in August of 2011 signaled that Belgium was overflowing with top-tier talent, even if cultivated outside the Top Sports Schools. He had, it seemed, put in his 10,000 hours at Anderlecht, where he set the scoring record that catapulted him to the big time.
“Amazing. It's a dream come true,” he told the Guardian when the transfer was announced. “I dreamed to play here since I was 10 years old. … It's amazing to arrive here in a big club with big ambition. It was just what I was searching for.”
But at Chelsea, Lukaku struggled to find steady time on the field. For much of his first season, he languished in the reserves. When Chelsea won the Champions League in May 2012, Lukaku had made just four starts for the club. He wasn’t happy about his lack of playing time. (He said of Andre Villas-Boas, his manager to begin the season, “I will never forgive [him] for what he did to me.”) On the bus after the victory, when Lukaku’s then-teammate Salomon Kalou put the trophy on his lap, Lukaku asked him to take it away.
“I didn’t want to touch it because … I had no part in it at all,” he told the De Standaard newspaper. “It wasn’t me, but my team that won the trophy.” To get back on the field, Lukaku had to head into the wilderness. That August, he went out on loan from Chelsea to West Bromwich Albion. And he quickly found the success he was looking for. He racked up 17 goals, more than any striker at Chelsea. The next year, Lukaku went to Everton on another season-long loan and played well there, too. He joined the club permanently for an Everton-record fee of £28 million ($33 million). He was still just 21.
Before Lukaku’s early departure, Hazard joined Chelsea in June of 2012. To announce his arrival there, he tweeted: “I’m signing for the Champions League winner.” The deal was worth £32 million ($37.7 million). And right away, unlike that of his Belgian teammate, Hazard’s impact was immediately felt. In his first season, he made 34 Premier League appearances and scored nine goals. He also made six appearances each in the Champions League and FA Cup.
“Eden is 22. He has got the world at his feet and he can handle the pressure because he is that good,” Chelsea teammate Frank Lampard told Chelsea's official site in 2013. “His ability and speed off the mark, and the way he is able to turn on a sixpence is what all great attacking players have, and he’s got it in abundance.”
Hazard seemed supremely confident in his skills. He told Chelsea magazine: “I like to have the ball at my feet and to create something with a pass, a dribble, a shot. I’m an offensive player and it’s always important for me to make a good choice, a good pass, in the final third. The decisive moments happen in the final third.”
And he made good on his word. He scooped up multiple player of the year awards, and a few superlatives to boot. Some came to recognize him as the best player in Europe. Others went so far as to put him in the category of Messi and Ronaldo. Manchester United’s outspoken coach Jose Mourinho (then managing Hazard at Chelsea) told Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail that he’s “one of the three best players in the world.”
Meanwhile, at Everton, Lukaku rebuilt himself and thrived. He scored at will, and as he did his notoriety ballooned. By early 2017, the appetite for his talents had skyrocketed. When he turned down a new five-year contracted reported to be worth some £140,000 ($165,123) per week, the most lucrative contract in Everton’s history, the level of intrigue surrounding him increased.
Rumors then swirled that he would return to Chelsea, a move that would have put him back alongside Hazard. Hazard vaguely hinted at his own excitement over a possible reunion.
“He will have to make his own choice,” he told Singapore newspaper the Straits Times. “He’s still young, only 24, but every season, he has scored a lot of goals in the Premier League, and this shows he’s a good striker, because the Premier League is very tough.”
The possible Chelsea move amounted to nothing more than speculation, but the excitement over Lukaku’s future continued. Last July, when Lukaku signed with Manchester United, the tweet announcing the deal became @ManUtd’s most retweeted post of all time. Over 93,000 fans shared it, besting a previous record held by the first official photograph of Paul Pogba in a Manchester United kit after his return to the club.
That superstardom might explain the hype around the Belgium national squad. Each star has a huge following—on Instagram, Lukaku has three million followers; Hazard has 13.2 million—and each is competing at an unfathomably high level. Hazard’s quiet confidence radiates from him, as does his relaxed demeanor. Like when he once posted a photo of himself shooting a football like a jump shot before a big Sunday match. And Lukaku’s indelible cool—from his poolside photoshoots to his all-white nights out with Serge Ibaka and Paul Pogba—has carried him to the front of the football A-list.
The national team understands things need to be different this time around.
Indeed, the system was put in place for a reason: to win.
But in many ways, the country has already won. It has raised the level of its talent. But it has also made the divergent journeys of Hazard and Lukaku possible. That they have risen to prominence by taking markedly different paths through different systems speaks to the changes that Belgium has made to its youth development system. Changes that look as if they will last long into the future.
Hazard found the resources he needed abroad, at Lille. (His youngest brother, Ethan, who is in school, has started to train at Tubize.) Meanwhile, Lukaku was able to stay at home through his late teens, in part because of the development opportunities available to him in the Purple Talents Project, which allowed coaches to smooth out the rough edges of his skill set while he still went to regular school. Before the country revamped its system of development, Lukaku’s alternative route might not have been possible at all.
The Belgian squad has marketed itself as a group of friends coming together to play for a common cause. Hazard has been teasing his #REDTOGETHER campaign on social media as a means of gathering support. Lukaku has expressed his thanks to supporters as well, perhaps to drum up more enthusiasm.
Whether the family campaign will pay off is anybody’s guess. The kinship is surely there. "If I have something to say to Romelu—Romelu, stop scoring goals now. Score goals for Belgium in the national team for the World Cup, please," Hazard told Sky Sports in March.
That kind of friendly banter doesn’t come from a place where the resources are finite and there’s one path to the promised land. It comes from having multiple ways to win.
Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in numerous British and American publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, GQ, The Economist, Outside and Bloomberg Businessweek. His first book, The Changing of the Guard, on the post-9/11 evolution of the British Army, will be published by William Heinemann/Penguin Random House in March 2019. He also co-hosts the writing podcast Always Take Notes. Follow him on Twitter @simonakam.