16 October 2012

How did Belgium become so good?

The Belgians are coming! Axel Witsel and co are a team to fear.

As a country, Belgium used to be famous for chocolate, Tintin, incontinent children and being generally boring.

But now, for the first time in three decades, they have a football team to be proud of. What's more, this is a team that could actually challenge for major honours!

Not too long ago, Belgium was involved in a political crisis that saw it go 535 days without a government - a world record - and end up on the brink of breaking into two. Rather ironically, it was during this crisis, which started in 2007, that most of its current crop of young soccer stars began to blossom.

In the early part of 2008, the only Belgian in England's Premier League was Emile Mpenza, who epitomised his generation of footballers in his country. A young striker who showed plenty of promise in his younger days, his career went downhill after the 2002 World Cup - the last major tournament Belgium qualified for. An attempt to rejuvenate his career at Manchester City failed, and he was soon to be found at Plymouth Argyle.

That summer, City put their faith in another Belgian. 22-year-old Vincent Kompany's international career began when he was just 18, and by the time the centre-back moved to the City of Manchester Stadium, he already had 20 caps for the Red Devils. He quickly established himself in the Citizens, and before long, he was captain for both club and country.

Around the same time, Everton manager David Moyes spent £15million of his transfer budget to bring Marouane Fellaini to Goodison Park. The youngster instantly became recognisable for his Hair Bear Bunch revival barnet, but proved that he had substance, scoring nine goals from midfield in his first season.

The successes of Kompany and Fellaini encouraged more Premier League clubs to look for other Belgian players who would make their names in England. Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen was in the same Belgium team as Fellaini that reached the Semi Finals of the 2007 European Under-21s Championship. Later PL arrivals Jan Vertonghen and Kevin Mirallas were also in that squad, as was one major star who has to date avoided the overtures of the so-called best league in the world.

Axel Witsel was merely 18 years old when he played a starring role for the Standard Liege side that won Belgium's Jupiler League. In fact, the following season, Witsel scored the goal that retained the title for Liege. A technically sound player with great passing ability, he was soon a key player for the national team, for whom he has won 33 caps to date despite only being 23.

Last year, Witsel went abroad for the first time by signing for Portuguese outfit Benfica. After an impressive first campaign there, he was the subject of a €40million transfer to Zenit St Petersburg last month.

But soon, Belgium's best new talents got even better - and even younger! Romelu Lukaku, labelled the new Didier Drogba, topped the Jupiler League's scoring charts when he was just 16 years old. Although great things were expected of him when he joined Chelsea and he hasn't fulfilled that potential yet, you've got to remember that he is still 19, and for someone so young to have 17 international caps is still very impressive.

Eden Hazard was also 16 when he made his league debut in France's Ligue 1 for Lille, and entered Belgium's national team at just 17 - completely bypassing the Under-21s. This summer, he made a £32million transfer to Chelsea, and Blues fans will tell you that, even though he's only been at Stamford Bridge for a few months, he is the genuine package.

An explosive attacking midfielder who can dictate a match and leave even the world's best defenders look like quivering wrecks, Hazard is the figurehead of the Belgian football revolution.

Add Thibaut Courtois, Toby Alderweireld, Moussa Dembele, Nacer Chadli, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin De Bruyne into the mix, and you have a 'Golden Generation' of Belgian footballers. But why do the Red Devils look so dangerous now?

Even though they haven't qualified for a major event since 2002, Belgium has never stopped producing good players - it's just that there are so many of them at the same time, and all of them are pretty young and can improve further.

Former international Thomas Buffel said, "In previous years, Belgium always had good players, maybe two, three or four in every campaign, but now it has as much as maybe 15 or 16 players who can fight for a spot, and that is a real strength. Even if they miss a few players there are others who can come in and do the job."

Can this Golden Generation reach the heights of the 1986 Red Devils that finished 4th in the World Cup? Well, Belgium are currently top of their qualifying group ahead of their meeting with Scotland, so it's looking good with regards to them ending their 12-year major tournament drought.

Brazil 2014 is probably too early to think of Belgium as title contenders. UEFA Euro 2016, which will be hosted by neighbours France, should be something to target, and most of their golden boys will be aged between 25 and 32 by the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

If Belgium are ever going to win a major football trophy, it will be within the next six years.

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