ANALYSIS: Russia 2018 | Belgium about 13 million but so many world-class players

Belgium World Class X1
Belgium World Class X1

In the English Premier League (EPL), three players have dominated the headlines in recent weeks – Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Mousa Dembele, who play for three of the biggest teams in England — Manchester City, Chelsea, and Tottenham respectively.

There is, however, a common denominator to them – they are all Belgians, and barring any serious injury, will represent their country at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Even though Belgium is not mentioned as one of the sure bets to win the Mundial, their starting XI defiantly states otherwise. What might hinder them could be the competence of their manager, Roberto Martinez, a relative novice in international football.

Let’s take a look at their strongest XI

Attachment 1 – Belgium World Class XI

Not in this XI are: Axel Witsel, Adnan Januzaj, Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Radja Nainggolan, Marouane Fellaini, Michy Batshuayi, and Christian Benteke.

Mining Talent

So how did this country of less than 13 million produce such an array of world-class footballers while traditional football countries like Italy is struggling to find players to take over from the old crew?

Nicolas Piwowarow, a business consultant based in Belgium said the country’s ability to produce world-class talent hinges on two things – the acknowledgment that Belgium can’t compete with European powers like England, Spain, and Germany as a strong economy and two, the production of talent cannot be predicated on their population.

So they had to, “invest in training young players by developing top-class infrastructure and football-school integration programmes; even if it meant to see those players leaving after a few years in Belgium’s top division, at least they would have been with us for some time.”

And just like Brazil and Argentina, Belgium has almost placed players at the biggest clubs in the top teams at the top five European leagues.

England Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea
Spain Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid
Italy Juventus, Napoli, Roma
Germany Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund
France PSG, Monaco, Lyon

This Football Times, in an article – Belgium: Twenty years for overnight success, revealed, “There was a clear emphasis placed on the innovation and development of coaching techniques across the national game, particularly at academies which had the resources to invest in youth.”

The article further revealed Van Himst as the pioneer and Georges Leekens the teacher – the two being the ones that set the line in motion. Himst is said to have “predicted a future game based on the speed of countering, and he urged Belgian academies to coach these principles.

“Gone were the days, for Van Himst at least, of controlled, built-up attacks. He wanted to see a greater emphasis on speed of play and technical proficiency.”

Koen Samyn, a teacher in Belgium believes the key has been the “professionalization of youth soccer.”

“Youth soccer is taken very seriously and a number of steps have been taken to ensure that young players are taught the state of the art in professional soccer.

“The measures include accreditation of coaches, trainers, and facilities. As a result of the accreditation process, talented players can make informed choice for a youth club and in turn, the youth club can attract more talented players.”

Currently, the Belgian league is ranked ninth by UEFA Coefficient, below Spain, England, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Portugal, and Ukraine – in that order.

The influence of a better youth structure and emphasis on coaching has helped Nigeria grow her national team because the country’s best years as a football country was at a time the majority of its players played or passed through Belgium.

The late Stephen Keshi became one of the best defenders [libero] in the world playing for Anderlecht. Of the 22 players that represented Nigeria at USA’94, 10 [highlighted in green] had their footballing education enhanced in Belgium.

1994 Super EAGLES

The Future is Assured

Antonio Conte, in his time as Italy coach, expressed his admiration [or envy] for the way Belgium was producing young and technically proficient players in 2016, ahead of the Euro Championships. “They deserve credit for producing young stars and we should envy the way they have achieved it,” Conte told Goal.

“They are a team with a clear identity, plus they have players who can win games by themselves with an individual bit of skill, ” achieved through a systematic training process.

If a vision is going to be long-lasting, it must be written down and the man, who put things down and formulated a document for the Federation is called Michel Sablon, who was a part of the coaching team at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.

What I picked from the document – ‘La vision de formation de l’URBSFA’ was “Fun for everyone, from beginner to professional. Fun for every player, even for the “weakest. The pleasure of playing and the pleasure of learning = playing football!”

A research carried out by the University of Louvain, headed by Professor Werner Helsen revealed “there was far too much emphasis on winning and not enough on development,” Sablon told the Guardian in 2014.

“There was also evidence to support the federation’s theory that 2v2, 5v5 and 8v8 were the best small-sided games to encourage children to practise the skills – dribbling and diagonal passing – that were central to their philosophy of playing 4-3-3.”

Sablon continued: “We said when a boy or girl wants to start playing football, you must offer first the dribble, let them play freely.” That philosophy is seen in the movements of their forward players like Hazard, De Bruyne, Mertens, and even in their defenders like Vertonghen and Vermaelen.

They also made entry-level coaching courses free, a move that saw enrollment grow 10 times what they initially had and they were able to first train the trainers to ensure that the message was passed across correctly.

Conte postulated in 2016 that “Belgium have everything it takes to do well in the future.” Will that future be Russia 2018?


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