By Richard French
Not generally considered as a powerhouse of world football, Belgium have largely had to look on with envy as their prestigious neighbours, France and Holland, have had success at international level. But could that be about to change?
Like Germany, Belgium is producing a great number of talented young players who are making waves in Europe. Top clubs from around the continent are now turning to Belgian talent after many years of overlooking it.
In England’s Premier League; Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Vincent Kompany and Dedryk Boyata (Manchester City), Marouane Fellani (Everton) and Moussa Dembele (Fulham), are all Belgian nationals and all are under 25 years old.
The most exciting prospects, however, are striker Romelu Lukaku and attacking midfielder Eden Hazard. Both these players have attracted attention from top clubs and are sure to have a big future in the game.
Lukaku is just 17 and plays for Brussels club Anderlecht. He has 29 goals in 65 professional matches, and is touted by many as a possible replacement for Didier Drogba at Chelsea.
Hazard graduated from the Lille OSC academy in France in 2007. Since then he has won the French league’s young player of the year award on two occasions, the first foreign player to do so and the first ever player to win the award twice.
Since the nation’s fourth place finish in the 1986 World Cup and runners-up spot in the 1980 European Championships, they have had little to shout about. They have not since got past the round of 16 in the World Cup and not past round one in the Euros.
So why is it that such a talented group of players is emerging? One argument is that the immigration in Belgium has opened up a whole new pool of talent. In Brussels, for example, 36% of the 1.8 million population can trace their roots from outside of the country. Of the seven aforementioned players, only Vermaelen is not from an ethnic minority group.
Perhaps the most successful player of the last generation of Belgian players has been 32 year old Emile Mpenza, who has 19 goals from 57 senior caps. Along with Kompany, Boyata and Lukaku, he can trace his routes back to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Furthermore, Dembele and Fellani hail from Mali and Morocco respectively. African players have enjoyed huge success in Europe’s top leagues in recent years, and it seems that the naturalised Belgians are proving just the same.
In addition, the €10 million profit gained from hosting the Euro 2000 competition has been pumped back into the country’s football system, with particular focus on youth development. Whilst the controversial national football centre is still not fully functioning, the plans are a positive sign for the future of the national team.
Belgium borders France, Holland and Germany, meaning that each of these giants of world football can easily send scouts to watch young Belgian players. The result of this is that many end up learning their trade in other, stronger leagues.
Vermaelen and fellow defender Tody Alderweireld came through the Ajax academy, whilst Dembele was at AZ Alkmaar before his move to Fulham. Hazard was snapped up by Lille at the age of 15 and has hence been playing at a higher standard than if he had remained in Belgium. Moreover, Kompany played for Hamburg for two years from the age of 20.
All these factors combined have led to the most exciting time in many years for Belgian supporters. Given the divided and perhaps apathetic feelings off the pitch, this phase could be crucial for the country. Football allows the Flemish (Dutch speakers) and Walloons (French speakers) to unite arguably more than any other facet of their society.
The next World Cup in Brazil should be the aim for this group of players, as qualification for Euro 2012 could come too soon for the youngsters. They are currently fourth in their qualifying group behind Germany, Turkey and Austria.
However, with a few more years experience under their belts, don’t bet against Belgium being represented in the world’s biggest competition in June 2014.