On October 1th, Belgium secured their spot in next summer’s World Cup in Brazil by beating Croatia 2-1 away at a waterlogged Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb. Their qualifying runs saw them go unbeaten through group A, recording eight wins and two draws, scoring 18 goals and conceding only an impressive four in the process. It’s safe to say Belgium’s golden generation is finding their feet, as they currently rank sixth in the world by FIFA’s estimate. Their rapid rise to stardom has left other European countries marveling at how a relatively small nation with a population of 11million people can become such a force in the global game of football. Even England might be tempted to look across the channel for inspiration, though it would be an utterly futile exercise, as we would need look no further than the premiership.
The Premier League has become a farmer league for Belgian talent in recent years. Belgians have grown a fierce reputation. This is reflected in the league’s biggest transfers the last two years. Wonderkid and Ballon d’Or nominee Eden Hazard triggered a bidding war between the big three – Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City – before he eventually chose the Londoners in May last year. Spurs paid their highest ever fee for a defender when they paid £11million for Jan Vertonghen, and Manchester United dropped a whopping £27,5million on Everton for the services of Marouane Fellaini.
“We’ve matured. Everyone’s playing in England and that’s allowed us to set our sights high,” Fellaini told the Daily Mail after the victory in Zagreb. And he’s right. In the current Belgian squad, 13 players perform their day-to-day business at a Premier League club (also potentially in this category is Belgian-born United starlet Adnan Januzaj, though no one seem to be perfectly sure of his nationality or origin). Belgium’s Red Devils are basing their success on a foundation laid out by the premiership. A majority of players are brought to England at a young age and then developed through the academies. As a result, England are now four places behind Belgium on the FIFA ranking.
So is the Belgian invasion thriving on the expense of English talent?
In the danger of breaking any illusions about an approaching emergence of a superior crop of English players capable of conquering the world, I will say that English football is unfortunately not getting any better. The current FIFA ranking justifies the Three Lions’ ability as an average-plus international side with a few players of top class. Despite talented youngster like Jack Wilshere, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck establishing themselves in the England squad, there are no signs auggesting that English football will soon appear at the top of the international ladder. Partly, this is down to the result based approach domestically.
One of the components in the success of Belgium dates back to their humiliating exit at the group stages when they hosted the Euros together with Holland in 2000. The then technical director in the Belgian FA saw the need for a structural change throughout Belgian club football, and amongst other measures persuaded all teams to play 4 – 3 – 3 with wingers and a flat back four (this was not well received, as the traditional Belgian way is a back four) and encouraged clubs to give homegrown talent the nod ahead of cheaply bought players from abroad. This structure draw some parallels with the German and Spanish way – arguably the world’s two superpowers at the moment.
The overall plan worked and now, more than a decade after they were edged out of their own European Championship tournament by Turkey, Belgium are looking a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming World Cup.
As a contrast, the top clubs in the Premier League are structured around foreign players. As an indication of how top clubs rely on outsiders, thirteen seasons have passed since an Englishman was top goalscorer. The stats are not as gloomy when looking at the PFA Player of the Year award, but that too is still dominated by non-English footballers. The Three Lions are suffering from the Premier League’s desire to be the best domestic league in the world.
In the unforgiving nature of the Premier League there is no room for patience. Results need to arrive quickly, otherwise heads will roll and money will fly – predominantly in the direction of an up and coming Spaniard or, for the sake of this argument, a Belgian.
As a result the premiership is the toughest and most competitive league in the world, with the biggest global audience and the highest revenues, yet this fails to pay off in the shape of success for the internationals. The argument that homegrown players will benefit from playing and developing along the very best only applies to a certain extent. As of now, young English footballers are overlooked due to the club’s immediate demand for success. Therefor, there is currently little correlation between a strong domestic league and an accomplished international team.
The FA needs to have a look at transfer- and foreign players regulations if they ever hope to make England a contender for international glory. Looking at Belgium and Germany is good place to start. As we all know, the campaign in Brazil will end in a respectable but unacceptable quarter-final defeat and collective slaughter from the tabloids, even if we all know deep down that England simply are punching at an fitting weight level. They simply are no better.
Unless the FA take action very soon, England will keep nurturing foreign players at the cost their own glory. The question is – are we prepared to risk the Premier League to falter for the Three Lions to succeed?
Is English football in need of structural changes?
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