The impact of Belgian football is all around us. Whether it’s Chelsea’s twinkle-toed forward Eden Hazard or Zenit St Petersburg’s cultured midfielder Axel Witsel, a new generation of superstars are whetting our appetite.
Belgium is the 140th largest country in the world and occupies just 0.02 per cent of the world’s land, yet the talent being generated from within its borders is set to have a seismic effect on the international game – and everything is coming together nicely for the 2014 World Cup.
Plenty of column inches have talked up so-called golden generations in the past, only for many to falter along the way. Take Ferenc Puskás’s Hungary team of the Fifties or Luís Figo’s Portugal side of the early 2000s – both ultimately failed to deliver a trophy.
Belgium has constructed a conveyor belt of talent that has produced the likes of Hazard and Witsel, among many others. The problem is, the production line ends in either England, across the border in France or in the Netherlands. Meanwhile Belgium’s domestic game, bereft of the nation’s top stars, lays in tatters.
But former Belgium international and Newcastle United cult hero Philippe Albert, who played in the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, says there are many more talented kids yet to emerge from Belgium who have even more potential than the current crop of stars. The rest of the world should take note.
“We had an outdated system that a few former players have worked hard to change. It’s a gradual shift but we’re seeing more promising 15- and 16-year-olds coming through,” Albert tells alpha.
“The next generation that’s emerging is even better than the one we’ve got at the moment. I’m really looking forward to seeing them. In a few years time they’ll go straight into the national team – maybe in time for the next World Cup. We certainly have a golden generation here in Belgium.”
One of the players Albert is referring to is Charly Musonda, a highly rated 16-year-old on Chelsea’s books. He is one of many Belgian youngsters to make the move to Stamford Bridge, with Romelu Lukaku, Thibaut Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne and, of course, Hazard all putting down roots in West London.
Along with his older brothers Lamisha and Tyka, Musonda is still honing his craft at the Blues’ lavish training base in London’s leafy suburbs, but Albert believes he could break into the national team in time to make his mark at Fifa’s showpiece tournament in 2014.
“Musonda is a very promising player who was signed by Chelsea. He is one of several young players I expect to break into the national team in the next couple of years,” says Albert.
Snapped up from Anderlecht’s famed academy, Musonda is of Zambian descent. Belgium’s eagerness to embrace a new generation of immigrant players has been key to its rise. Like France, England and Holland, Belgium is now capitalising on immigration from Africa to Europe by recruiting stars of foreign parentage.
The likes of Marouane Fellaini (of Moroccan descent), Moussa Dembélé (Malian) and Lukaku (Congolese), who made his international debut at 16, are changing the face of the Belgian game. And Albert believes this is a welcome trend.
“Immigration has helped Belgium,” says Albert. “The likes of Fellaini and Dembélé are perhaps the first generation of their families to be born in Belgium, but they have the right mentality and are very patriotic, which is important. France won the 1998 World Cup with many immigrant players in its squad and there is no doubt that the Belgian national team is benefitting from this now.”
But there’s another trend in Belgian football – one that is unsettling to Albert – and this is the damage being done to the grass roots of the game. The country is harvesting a crop of future world-beaters, but their desire to get playing time across the border in the Netherlands, where clubs such as Ajax are not afraid to blood their players young, has meant a decline in the standard of Belgian football. The likes of Anderlecht have been reduced to little more than feeder clubs.
“In the Netherlands clubs are not afraid to give their youngsters a chance. In Belgium, Italy and England clubs prefer to buy more established players. So to get that experience it has been crucial for Belgium’s good young players to play in the Netherlands,” says Albert.
“It’s a good thing for the national team, but it’s been bad news for the Belgian national league, which is now in crisis as the best players play abroad. There is the opposite problem in England, where the Premier League is very good but the national team has suffered.
“Spain is one of the few countries to have both a strong national team and a strong domestic league. The level of the Belgian league is not as high as it used to be and you can see this in the performances of teams like Anderlecht and Club Brugge, who finished last in their Champions League and Europa League groups respectively. So there is still plenty of work to be done.”
Manchester City and Belgium captain Vincent Kompany lifted the Premier League trophy last year and is one of the country’s most recognisable faces. But even he, whose father arrived in Belgium from Congo, left his homeland for Hamburg, Germany, when he was 20 to get games and increase his chances of making the grade.
“Many of the Belgian players who are doing so well left Belgium before they were 15. Jan Vertonghen, Dries Mertens and Thomas Vermaelen left Belgium very early. They had to,” says Albert.
“Hopefully they can prove their promise and do well at the next World Cup in Brazil. The last time the country qualified for the World Cup was in 2002, but before that we played in every World Cup since 1982 – so the people of Belgium are not used to being out of the World Cup for that long. Ten or 15 years ago people were very pleased with the national team, but there has been a long period without a good team – so the golden generation has come along at the perfect time.”
If Belgium qualify for Brazil 2014, the team will go into the competition with high expectations, but the hosts will be under the biggest pressure to deliver, with the likes of Neymar and Oscar expected to light up the tournament. With Belgium’s stars already playing in the Champions League and Premier League, Albert says pressure shouldn’t be an issue.
“There is always a risk with a golden generation of players that they’ll buckle under the pressure and not perform how everyone expects them to,” says Albert.
“This is dangerous, but nearly every Belgian player in the national team is at a big club where they are under pressure to perform every week. Whether it’s Hazard at Chelsea or Witsel at Zenit, they are big-money players who are used to that.
“In the past Belgium’s problem has been playing well without winning, but now the coach Marc Wilmots is combining the two and we are top of our World Cup qualifying group. We have had some very positive results and it’s due to the players being able to handle the pressure of playing at the biggest clubs in Europe week in, week out. When you have a squad of 22 talented players, you know you are in a good position.”
While Albert fears for the future of Belgium’s domestic league, most Belgians would claim it’s a price worth paying if the national team can deliver sustained success on the international stage. And Albert admits there is genuine belief that the country can leave its mark on the next World Cup.
The likes of Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, Eric Geret and, of course, Albert have made great contributions to Belgian football in the past. But the rising generation is unlike anything the country has seen before.
Sitting joint top of its World Cup qualification group as we go to press, Belgium’s quest to appear in Brazil is on track, with a crunch game in Croatia in October likely to hold the key.
All eyes will be on Brazil’s golden generation in 2014, but as the European nations fight to become the first to win the tournament outside their own continent, keep an eye on the growing force of Belgium. It is close to becoming known for much more than just chocolate and Jean-Claude Van Damme.