As is quickly becoming the norm for international weeks for England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; the last seven days has fans of each country spending a lot of their time looking across in the European continent green with envy. Scotland are probably the only one of the five Home Nations that can look back on their two games with any sort of reasonable pleasure, and that will only cause to ramp up the jealousy.
Of the countries being fawned over, and there are quite a few, it is the “golden generation” currently filtering through the Belgium ranks that are causing most to sigh, shrug or clammer for the two islands to instill a footballing imprint that will be reaping benefits by the time the national managers next pull together their panels of 23.
England have seen Spain, Germany and the Netherlands up close and personal in recent years and Roy Hodgson’s men have been shown up on each occasion; even if they did squeak a 1-0 win over the current World and European Champions. However, Belgium and their array of stars are the current flavour of the week. Given that a core of the squad play and star regularly in the Barclays Premier League and that Marc Wilmots’ side are coasting towards Brazil in a group with both Scotland and Wales; there was always likely to be quite a spotlight cast on them.
And; as Michael Cox superbly points out, “in the build-up to major international tournaments, there is often such broad consensus about the competition’s ‘dark horse’ to the point that it’s so frequently cited as a dark horse that it’s no longer a dark horse.” Belgium are not dark horses for the 2014 World Cup. They are among the many contenders.
There are a number of reasons why Belgium should be very good at producing incredibly capable young players. Following Euro 2000, a tournament that they co-hosted, both the Belgian and Dutch football associations invested €10 million into grass roots football and youth development. Despite not making it out of their group in the tournament, it was supposed to help re-start Belgium as a footballing nation after a rather poor decade in the 1990s.
Another €10 million followed in 2005 for the construction of a national football centre in Tubize. It was supposed to boost six football pitches and full furnish changing rooms across a 23 acre site. There should also be a five star hotel resort and two restaurants that play host to every national side’s training camps. Six years on from the first brick being laid, and it currently only houses the administrative staff of the Royal Belgian Football Association, as well as being the location of the national team manager’s office.
Traditionally, Belgian clubs have had to produce their own players thanks to more prestigious leagues situated on their every border. A Belgian club has never won the European Cup/Champions League and the last UEFA Cup/Europa League victory came in 1988 when KV Mechelen lifted the trophy. It makes it difficult for the very best players to be retained within the league and has led to it acting as an unfortunate feeder league for richer nations nearby.
As John Chapman explains on the excellent BelgoFoot, the Jupiler League itself is a bit of a mess. There is constant in-fighting amongst the clubs as they try to work how they should reform what is a recently reformed league. The crux of the matter boils down to money. The bigger sides want to make sure they get more than their fair share of the relatively low (by European standards) television rights, whereas the smaller clubs are just keen to secure their futures.
It means little time has been spent on producing a collective system to help nurture the very best young players up the league. Instead, each team goes it alone as they try to nurture young talents with the hope of selling them at great profit. Standard Liege have their own, very successful academy; but they stand very much along in comparison to their league rivals.
Some of the other players in the current Belgian side have got there by learning their trade in different European countries. Eden Hazard was relocated to France by his father as a youngster so that he could benefit from their national program. Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, Atletico Madrid’s Toby Alderweireld and Tottenham pair Moussa Démbéle and Jan Vertonghen came through the youth ranks in the Netherlands. Napoli’s Dreis Mertens had to look elsewhere to get his chance while a youth player with AA Gent. He moved to the Dutch second division before working his way up to PSV and now to Italy.
There are lessons to learn from the clubs in Belgium; but those are mostly about using prodigious talents to balance the books. With television money gushing through the Premier League, that will only be of interest to the Scottish, Irish, Northern Irish and Welsh clubs.
A grand master plan that will help to establish a footballing identity for the whole country and ensures young players are given a chance to become the best footballers that they can is not something that can be taken away from a trip to Tubize; no matter what they will try to tell you.
(Photo credit: Erik Daniel Drost via Flickr)