Have Tottenham capitalised on the rise of Belgian football?
North London is fast becoming a second home for precocious Belgian talents, with Toby Alderweireld the latest to join the clubs crop of rising stars. The rapid emergence of Belgium as a footballing powerhouse is a remarkable phenomenon, one that seems ever the more unlikely when you delve a little deeper. Here we take a look at Belgium’s volatile and at times tumultuous footballing past.
Belgium was a nation borne out of the shadows of its near neighbours. Geographically saddled between the Great powers of the Netherlands and France, it has at times been the dominated rather than the dominator. As a footballing power the nation achieved its “Golden Era” during the 80’s and early 90’s where a 2nd place finish at Euro 80 is arguable when their footballing pinnacle was reached. Since the successes under Guy Thys the national team has largely faded into obscurity, hitting rock bottom in 2007 with the teams 71st placing in FIFA’s rankings. This was largely off the back of failing to qualify for the European championships outright since 1984.
The emergence of Belgium’s crop of “wonderkids” is therefore something of an oddity. Belgium’s population size is restrictive on its talent pool and much of its training and coaching facilities are provided by its near neighbours. The Ajax Academy rather than the Belgian equivalent developed the talents of Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. The explanation that seems to fit best in the Belgian case is the way in which stagnation helped create a readymade platform for fresh talents. With no “old guard” having cemented places both domestically and internationally, coaches have been free to pick and keep younger players in their teams. When you look at the major domestic teams, (Anderlecht, Standard Liege, Club Brugge), they all possess, in the main, youthful squads with average ages varying between 23 and 25 years. Compare this to a big Premier League team such as Chelsea, who until a few seasons back had an average First Team age that was pushing 30.
It wouldn’t have been outlandish to tip Belgium as an outside bet for the 2014 World Cup in Rio. Many of the talents developed in and around Belgium have been deemed worthy of places in some of the best teams in the game, players that continue to flourish even when faced with the harshest of tests. The likes of Hazard, Fellaini and Kompany are already household names in England. This is whilst neglecting many who are taking the continent by storm. The Standard Liege Youth Academy is largely responsible for the uncovering of Steven Defour and Axel Witsel who are arguably two of the countries more understated exports.
So what can the English learn from the Belgian miracle? The passing of the so called “Golden Generation” has left both a hole and at the same time created a great opportunity. Roy Hodgson is the main with the unenviable task of trying to forge some sort of new dynasty out of the ruins of the last. Without undermining the status and standard of the Premier League we urgently need to find a way of encouraging home grown players through the ranks of clubs. The Belgian story isn’t quite the miracle it first seems, but a story that can be readily replicated given the right application.
We are yet to discover whether Belgium can truly discover its footballing potential; a brief cameo at last summers World Cup Finals provided a mere taster of what could develop over the next few years. Domestically though the picture is a little clearer, with Belgian after Belgian taking the Premier League by storm.
What next then for Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation?’