Lukaku and Hazard are just the tip of the iceberg. Here's Josef Linhoff.
Belgium: more famous for its waffles and chocolate than its sporting glory. Tucked away in a small corner of northern Europe, however, one of football’s ‘lesser lights’ may well become a future giant of the European game. This would be a welcome change for a country with a largely unremarkable football heritage, its most famous export to date being the Bosman ruling.
So which players can justify such optimism? For one, new Manchester City captain and a member of the Premier League team of the year, Vincent Kompany. Alongside him stands Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, despite his struggles with bad luck and worse injuries since his incredible debut season in the Premier League with Arsenal. Daniel Van Buyten (33) is no stranger to European football (or Wayne Rooney’s right ankle) and was an ever-present in Bayern Munich’s march to the 2010 Champions League final. With youngsters like Ajax’s Jan Verthongen (24) or Dedryck Boyata (20) on loan at Bolton, the Belgian defence looks bright.
The same could be said for the midfield. Marouaine Fellaini (23) is well known as much for his midfield prowess as his outrageous hairdo. His almost habitual suspensions apart, this is the man for whom cash-strapped Everton paid Standard Liege a record £15million and is repeatedly of interest to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Alongside him: Axel Witsel (22) of Champions League side Benfica, and Steven Defour (23), once of regular interest from Manchester United and the recipient of a ‘get well’ card from Sir Alex, who has recently joined Europa League and Portuguese Champions Porto.
However, not until we consider the attack do tongues start wagging and two potential world-beaters emerge. In Eden Hazard (20) and Romelu Lukaku (18), the hopes and expectations of Belgium’s football future are centred. Lukaku, one of the many ‘new Drogbas’ bandied around by the media, may at least have the talent to justify the tag. Winning your tenth national cap before your eighteenth birthday helps, as does scoring 252 goals in 161 youth matches. Hazard, meanwhile, was the linchpin of Lille’s unlikely league triumph in last season’s Ligue 1, as the unfashionable northern outfit won their first league title since 1954. Hazard was the first non-Frenchman to win the Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year’in 2009. In 2010, he became the first player to win the award twice, and improved on this by becoming the 2010-2011 Ligue 1 Player of the Year. When Zinedine Zidane states ‘Hazard will be a major star’, one cannot help but take notice.
Of course, talents like Hazard, Lukaku et al are not exactly a secret anymore. What of other names on the verge of discovery?
Jelle Vossen (22) was the top scorer in Belgium last season as his twenty league goals, many of exceptional quality, fired RC Genk to the Belgian Championship. After a breakthrough year, Vossen is now a newcomer to the national side with eight caps.
The shining star of the Belgian Champions, however, is not Vossen but Kevin de Bruyne (20), a creative midfielder of enormous potential. Widely known to have been the subject of a late-August bid from Chelsea, such was the interest from Stamford Bridge they were even prepared to allow de Bruyne to stay on-loan at Genk for the upcoming season. After five goals and sixteen assists in the league, de Bruyne earned his first cap in a friendly against Finland last August. Ironically de Bruyne will be facing a still-interested Chelsea in this season’s Champions’ League group stage. Perhaps by December his name will not be so unfamiliar
Furthermore, for all Belgium’s attacking promise, one could easily overlook the 19 year-old Belgian Goalkeeper of the Year for 2011, Thibault Courtois. Despite recently joining Chelsea - another example of their interest in up-and-coming Belgian youth - Courtais is currently charged with the task of replacing Manchester United’s David de Gea during a season-long-loan to Atlético Madrid. Given his age and promise, the Stamford Bridge hierarchy feel they have secured the eventual long-term successor to Petr Cech.
With such talents waiting to emerge, and already-established stars playing for top European teams, the cause for optimism is clear. Furthermore, a little further down the line, the next ‘Hazard’ and ‘Lukaku’ await – quite literally. Jordan Lukaku (16) and Thorgan Hazard (18) have been earning equally as impressive reviews as their older siblings did at their age.
Jordan Lukaku is already on the verge of breaking into Anderlecht’s first team. Older brother Romelu openly states he hopes to see his brother join him at Chelsea in the future: ‘’technically he is better than me”, Chelsea’s £18million man concedes.
Eden Hazard, meanwhile, is the oldest of four brothers, all of whom play football. Thorgan (18), Kyllian (15) and Ethan (7) are on the same path as their oldest sibling. Already a Belgium youth international, having represented Belgium at Under-16, 17, 18 and 19 level, Thorgan is on the books of the prestigious youth academy at RC Lens (ironically the hated rivals of Eden’s Lille). Lens, noted for developing talents like (Chelsea’s) Gael Kakuta, (Manchester United’s) Paul Pogba and (Real Madrid’s) Raphael Varane, seems the ideal place for Thorgan to emerge from Eden’s shadow. Eden himself has stated he considers Thorgan the more gifted of the two. Rumours of a future move to Barcelona abound after he was caught talking to club officials after a training session last October. Belgium Under 17 coach Bob Browaeys: “Thorgan is the best thing here since (his) brother and the comparison is visible. To come back in five or six years we will have a great on our hands.”
Exceptional family genes aside, is it still too early to be expecting Jordan and Thorgan to make their mark just yet. They have simply been used as examples to show how the Belgian talent pool runs deep.
This overflow of young talent could be a welcome change for a country whose own football heritage is relatively limited (their best World Cup outing to-date was 4th place in 1986, whilst they haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 2002). Being just a small country nestled in the midst of some true football superpowers, Belgium has become the forgotten man of football in this part of the world.
So how did this ‘talent revolution’ come to be? How did Belgium suddenly stumble upon a potentially great side?
The lack of resources available to Belgian Jupiler Pro League sides means that the likes of Racing Genk, Standard Liege and Club Bruges quite simply cannot afford to import overseas talent on the scale of their English or Spanish neighbours. This lack of financial muscle creates a ‘back-to-basics’ approach, where clubs turn towards their own youth academies as a means of nurturing their own talent. If one such academy graduate can then be sold for a healthy fee (like the £15million Standard Liege received for Fellaini) then such a practice becomes financially beneficial for the parent club. This can explain the emergence of young talents like de Bruyne and Vossen at Genk. To put complaints about ‘unfair’ European football economics aside, this may be of overall national benefit. The need to nurture domestic talent may ultimately strengthen the national sides of those particular countries; as the current Belgian national team can testify.
Furthermore, it may well be that levels of immigration have had an effect. Many members of the Belgian team come from immigrant backgrounds. Fellaini (Morocco), Lukaku (Congo) and Witsel (Martinique) can all be viewed through the prism of a colonial past. This is not a new practice at international level. France has produced countless successful players from its former African-colonies, whilst the same process is underway in Germany -- Ozil (Turkey), Khedira (Tunisia) and Podolski (Poland) are key figures for the nationalmannschaft. This process certainly broadens the talent at Belgium’s disposal.
Another reason for the sudden emergence of Belgian talent could be the simplest one of all – chance. Every now and then, a country will throw together an abundance of talent, generally labelled as a ‘Golden Generation’. Portugal, a country of roughly the same population as Belgium, emerged from a tumultuous 1980’s to discover a Figo-led generation in the early 1990’s, for example.
Is the same about to happen in Belgium? Has such a generation arrived to rival the Jean Marie Pfaff-inspired 1984 success? It is still far too early and these players still far too young to tell. All optimism is hypothetical. Not that the bookmakers are optimistic at all - William Hill have Belgium at a massive 125/1 to triumph in 2014. However, such long odds seem unrepresentative of their potential. Armed with such talent, do not be surprised if a Hazard-led Belgium springs a few surprises in the coming years. Certainly, there have been internationally successful teams in the past of nowhere near the same quality.