The Barclays Premier League is being taken over; by Belgium. Consider that every weekend, one Premier League team, boasting a young Belgian star, faces off against a team dependent on another Belgian star.
Everton has gotten off to a hot start by the grace of midfielder Marouane Fellaini and his team-high three goals. His colleague and compatriot Kevin Mirallas, a striker, might yet prove one of the Premier League’s bargains of the season after the Toffees snapped him up from Olympiakos for some £6m.
That’s if the £15m Tottenham spent to release Moussa Dembélé – one of the league’s most technically gifted forwards – from his Fulham contract doesn’t turn out to be an even better deal. Or indeed the £12m Spurs paid for Ajax defender Jan Vertonghen, who steered Spurs to a huge win over Manchester United last month.
Target men Christian Benteke, newly of Aston Villa on a £7m fee, and Romelu Lukaku, on loan to West Brom from Chelsea are among the top scorers on their teams. Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany could well be the world’s best central defender. Sunderland goalkeeper Simon Mignolet saves his side points all by himself on a weekly basis. Arsenal’s central defender Thomas Vermaelen has been critical to their surprisingly solid start.
And then there’s Chelsea, which has gone crazy for Belgians. Chelsea owes seven of its eleven goals to a shot, assist or penalty delivered by playmaker Eden Hazard. They have also loaned out Belgian super-prospects goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois to Atletico Madrid and playmaker Kevin de Bruyne to Werder Bremen.
Not a one of these ten Belgians is older than 26. Hazard and Benteke are just 21. Lukaku is 19.
Charles de Gaulle was the man who dissed Belgium, but he had a point: the country is, in fact, made up of fragments of other countries. But if the nation’s new golden generation seems like another accident, a country the size of Maryland striking a rich vein of talent by hitting a series of genetic jackpots, it isn’t. This is all by design.
Consider where Belgium was: an afterthought. There was irony in the decline of Belgian soccer. No league, and no national team, suffered as much from the advent of soccer’s free agency following the 1995 Bosman Ruling than the very league that had denied Jean-Marc Bosman his freedom after his contract ran out with RFC Liège, causing him to sue in 1990.
Once a respected league that produced five European competition finalists, Belgian football deflated after the Bosman Ruling. Freed players streamed out of the Belgian league. They were replaced by cheap no-name foreigners, seemingly bought wholesale from some off-shore vendor, diluting interest in the league. Academies fell into disrepair and the few prospects that did emerge played weak competition.
Starved of talent, the Belgian national team – which reached the knockout stages of every World Cup from 1982 through 1994, placed fourth at the 1986 World Cup, third at Euro ’72 and second at Euro ’80, trading on a cocktail of physicality, unbreachable defense, cohesion and character – hasn’t qualified for a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup.
“The Bosman ruling led a lot of second-rate foreigners to come to Belgium,” says Leo van der Elst, a member of Belgium’s 1980s golden generation. “A lot less attention was paid to our own youth players.”
In 2000, the Belgians finally acted. “There was a realization by the federation that our youth development was structurally poor,” says Jean-Francois de Sart, Belgium’s under-21 national team head coach from 1999 through 2011. In the following years, says de Sart, “clubs took responsibility in terms of infrastructure and the level of coaching.”
“Clubs finally realized that it was absolutely necessary to pay attention to youth development,” says van der Elst.
Belgium’s best young players were only getting five or six hours of practice time per week. “To reach top level football, you need a minimum of training,” says de Sart. That minimum wasn’t being met. So the federation opened seven regional training centers where the best prospects over the age of 14 in the country would get additional practice before school, doubling their hours.
The aforementioned players are the yield of these efforts. As are Zenit St. Petersburg’s Axel Witsel and FC Porto’s Steven Defour, two of the best young central midfielders in the game. Not to mention a next wave of talent on the horizon.
This new golden generation reached the semifinals of the under-21 European Championship in 2007 and of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. After the 2011-12 season, Kompany, Hazard, Mirallas and Vertonghen were each named player of the year in the English, French, Greek and Dutch leagues, respectively.
“The Belgian league has become a reservoir of talent for leagues all over Europe,” says de Sart, who is now the technical director of Standard Liège, whose academy is responsible for many of the above players. “We’ve never produced so much talent at once.”
“This is the best generation Belgium has ever had,” says van der Elst. “Most of our players play in top leagues now. We didn’t have that. Most of the guys then played in the Belgian league and didn’t play a lot of big games.”
The friction between the young prodigies and national team veterans that marred previous qualifying campaigns appears to have dissipated under new manager Marc Wilmots. As have the affectations that caused the team’s long-time medical staff to quit in unison, claiming the youngsters “acted like stars” and were “completely unmanageable.”
The country has even survived a stand-off between the Dutch- and French-speaking parts of the country: Wallonia and Flanders were ensnared in a constitutional battle that had factions in Flanders threatening to secede – and field their own national team.
That makes it high time for Belgium to qualify for another World Cup or European Championship – and it is no longer at all improbable. Belgium has made a strong start to its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign in a difficult group, beating Wales 2-0 away on Sept. 7 and tying Croatia 1-1 at home on Sept. 11. After staying away for years, the fans have returned to Belgium’s home games in numbers and cheer the team on in English — an odd but an apparent compromise between speaking French or Dutch.
This seems strangely fitting, given that most of the team’s core is employed in England — especially if its players’ schooling in the Premier League returns Belgium to the world stage.