Last summer’s World Cup in South Africa exposed some of the developing football nations to the grandest stage in the sport with some exciting results. Chile qualified for the tournament impressively under Argentinian coach, Marcelo Bielsa, and produced some of the most offensive displays of any team in South Africa. Fellow South Americans, Paraguay, also exceeded expectations by reaching the quarter-finals where they were knocked out narrowly by eventual winners Spain. But one emerging football nation, located a lot closer to home, are in the process of building a national squad perhaps capable of competing with the best at the next World Cup in Brazil three years from now.
Even though they failed to qualify for the past two World Cups and have featured only once in the European Championship since 1984 (and that was in 2000 when they qualified as co-hosts), Belgium currently retains the most promising collection of 16 to 23 year-olds anywhere on the planet. Perhaps the most impressive feature of this exciting crop of talent is the squad’s range and versatility. A first XI could already be picked from the technically gifted pool of players as each area of the pitch has been addressed in Belgium’s development process.
Steven Defour is 22 and propelled Standard Liege in to the Champions League twelve months ago alongside team-mate Axel Witsel, also 22, who is proficient in any area of the midfield. Marouane Fellaini transformed the Everton midfield in his first two seasons in England, and Eden Hazard, who at 20 is already one of the most coveted young players in Europe, provides the creative stimulus and is often employed as a forward.
In defence, Thomas Vermaelen provides the steel, and proved his quality by adapting to the Premier League within minutes of his arrival at Arsenal two years ago. He is accompanied by Vincent Kompany, who has arguably been Manchester City’s stand-out player this campaign, and Jan Vertonghen (23), the left-footed giant who controls the Ajax back-line.
Up front they have Moussa Dembele, who made his name in the AZ Alkmaar side who won the Dutch Eredivisie in 2009 before a £5million move to Craven Cottage last summer, and has performed exceptionally in the absence of Bobby Zamora in an otherwise struggling Fulham side. The country’s most exciting talent of all is Romelu Lukaku who is interesting Tottenham and Man City amongst others (click here to find out where he will be playing next season) and made his debut for the senior national side at the age of 16 and has already scored 27 goals in 64 appearances for Anderlecht before the age of 18.
Lukaku is widely compared to Chelsea’s Didier Drogba based on his size (6ft 4inches), athleticism and pace, but there is one significant distinction between the two. Drogba only became universally recognised at the age of 25 whilst playing for Marseille, whereas Lukaku, along with his young Belgium team-mates, are already acknowledged as considerable talents playing for esteemed football clubs.
Lukaku has regularly started for Anderlecht since he was 16, Fellaini, Defour and Hazard have been starting for respected, recognizable sides since the age of 17, Dembélé and Witsel since they were 18, and Vertonghen long before his twentieth birthday. The experience they have each been acquiring from such a young age will surely serve their development as a team in the long run.
Belgium’s precocious squad bear striking similarities to the young German side who performed so exceptionally at the World Cup in 2010, in that they embody a multicultural and multinational bent. Lukaku’s heritage traces back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dembele’s ancestors hail from Mali and Fellaini, who has roots in Morocco, won the Ebony Shoe in 2008 whilst playing for Standard Liege, an award given to the best player of African descent.
The youth development and coaching infrastructure in Belgium is largely influenced by their German, French and Dutch neighbours and the country boasts facilities of a decent standard compared with the rest of Europe. It remains unclear why so many young stars have emerged at once, providing a glimpse at the promising future of Belgian football, but their potential is extraordinary.
This glut of talent represents a diverse range of attributes and impressive versatility from defence up to attack without even citing the talented young Sunderland goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, 22, who recently kept a clean sheet on his international debut, winger Nacer Chadli, who at the age of 21 scored against Azerbaijan in his third appearance for Belgium and Kevin de Bruyne, the 19 year-old Racing Genk forward currently making waves in the Jupiler League.
The nation face a struggle to reach the play-offs for Euro 2012, and the tournament in Poland and Ukraine may just have come too soon, but it is not inconceivable to imagine approaching the 2014 Brazilian World Cup considering Belgium as serious contenders, with their stars having gained experience with any number of Europe’s big boys.