An Irishman, Regional Tensions and the English Premier League; How Has Belgian Football Got This Far?
Upon the announcement of Romelu Lukaku’s long-anticipated transfer to Manchester United – the culmination of a saga that spanned a number of months and encapsulated the political manoeuvres of two of the world’s most powerful suitors – a momentous series of records were broken. Possibly overshadowed by the striker’s arrest by the Los Angeles Police Department upon accounts of the misdemeanour citation of ‘excessive noise’, in addition to the Irish Herald’s now-infamous front-page faux pas, the fee involved - £75 million, rising to £90 million, depending on performances – reflects the worth not only of arguably the world’s greatest striking prospect, but of the brutish yet largely polished jewel in the crown of talent scouting and development in a nation graced by unprecedented aptitude belying its slight geographical stature – Belgium. Historically a lowland hotbed for continentally resonating culture, for pivotal diplomatic relations and more recently for its leading geopolitical and economic roles in a united Europe – in which its embracing of migration has played a key role – it is a nation that has found a defined identity amongst previously domineering neighbours, particularly in the 21st century, and especially in a sporting sense.
This is a subject we stumble upon in the event of a conjunction of necessity, subservient fascination and testament to time constraints. In all truth, this week has been a conundrum of time, circumstance and out-of-practice rituals personally, as upon return from Slovenia on Wednesday evening – almost two hours later than planned, thanks to Gatwick’s lack of consideration for flights from the Jože Pučnik Airport –, I had anticipated sufficient opportunity to sit down, thoroughly consider this blog’s direction and transfer such planning into communicative realisation. Since Thursday morning then, I’ve had time only to relax and realign myself with the ever-changing cycle of news amongst attending an event I irritably described, on a word document, as a ‘charade of gluttony, materialism and egocentricity, each above Americanism’. I carried this message on a folded-up piece of paper to what, if you hadn’t assumed, was my school’s prom, but couldn’t bring myself to brandish the message. Nevertheless, it has only been the limited timeframe of this Friday afternoon and evening left allocated to construct a coherent and vaguely provocative blog, a period in which I hope to finally answer a niggling query that has been persisting in my insatiable footballing consciousness for a while now; how has Belgium established itself as a leading global force, despite lacking a vast record of inspirational achievement or a continentally competitive domestic division?
It is certainly a quirk of the modern landscape of the sport that a nation so seemingly insignificant in ranking, let alone geographical or populational eminence, around a decade ago – 66th back in 2009 -, could have made such a dramatic ascent all the way to a world-leading position in late 2015, and could had maintained such perceived triumphs in challenging the established elite. Admittedly, the FIFA world rankings aren’t always the most statistically reflective of measurements of talent – evident in the categorising of Switzerland and Poland at fourth and fifth, above Chile, Colombia, France, the Belgians, Spain and Italy, in the globe at time of writing – but they undoubtedly pertain ambiguously to the effectiveness of particular national approach on the global scene, something that Belgium’s post-World Cup senior squad featured in abundance in their pensive, understated air of impermeable defence and lethal attack. These visible playing results were not the result of a massive stroke of Red Devil luck, but the tangible products of a youth-friendly set-up that has paved the way for the ilk of Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and Lukaku to hone their trade over a significant period of around 15 years from the academies of Anderlecht, Genk, Gent, Standard Liège and Club Brugge, to create profit in their sales to England, France and Germany and to realise such promise upon their instalment to the starting line-ups of such Champions League-qualifying bigwigs.
In order to survey such a drastic alteration in fortune, admittedly without results on the tournament stage for what has been often dubbed the ‘golden generation’ to date, however, we must roll back the years all the way back to the cultural roots of the game in the settlement that only came into existence in the Revolution of 1830. Throughout its chequered past, both as an integral feature of Roman, Celtic, Germanic, Dutch, French, Spanish and Austrian colonies, and an independent constitutional democracy, Belgium has undoubtedly been both the victim and the profiteer of being situated at the heart of Western Europe’s trade routes, as the influence of each, and all, of its modern neighbours – France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg – has given platform for the cross-road’s metamorphosis into a leading beacon of diplomacy, unity and bourgeois affluence. In its modern guise, describing poverty in the nation is comparable to conjuring thoughts of nonconformity in North Korea; unrealistic, though, in both cases, it does exist in minute pockets.
Garnering an understanding for its sporting and recreational culture, however, we have to look further than to its quarter of close neighbours for inspiration. Reportedly, it was in 1863, six years prior to the nation’s eventual international recognition of independence, that football found its catalyst for rapid expansion, without an Englishman to credit. Rather, it was the Irish student Cyril Bernard Morrogh that happened to bring the elitist luxury of a round leather ball upon arrival at the College of the Josephite Fathers at Melle, a suburban pocket on the edge of Ghent, and while his English compatriots at the college were said to have inspired the game amongst the locals, Morrogh still deservedly receives credit for being the first individual to bring a football to mainland Europe. The first official Belgian club emerged in 1880, as English students living in the city formed the Antwerp Athletic Club, now Royal Antwerp F.C and more famous for their links to Manchester United than for their domestic performance; promoted back to the Jupiler Pro League, or top division, last season after a third-place second division finish.
There was no organised competition for Athletic, however, until 1887, and the club had to wait a further eight years until the Union Belge des Sociétés de Sports Athlétiques (UBSSA) sports board came into organisation, and the first footballing league was brought forth. Of the seven sides that represented the founding fathers of this division, two - Union d'Ixelles and Sporting Club de Bruxelles – folded within three season of existence, two more – Racing Club de Bruxelles and Léopold Club de Bruxelles – survive today at amateur and semi-professional levels after name changes and turbulent pasts, FC Liégeois play at the third tier after a similarly peculiar history including their involvement at the heart of the scandal that lead to the Bosman ruling of 1995, and the emergent duo of FC Brugeois and Antwerp FC flourished, despite not winning titles until 1920 and 1929 respectively; now Pro League clubs as Club Brugge and the aforementioned Royal Antwerp. The vast majority of professional and semi-professional clubs today, in addition to a few who have since folded, were born in the decade between following the first league season, and by 1906, there existed 31 garrisons of the game, mostly in the suburbs of Brussels and Liège, but increasingly to smaller, less central cities including the French-influenced Wallonia’s Verviers, Limbourg, Seraing and Charleroi, while the Dutch-fixated Flanders boasted expansion in Leuven, Kortrijk, Mechelen, Lier and Ostend.
It is vital to recognise, at this stage, the distinct separations, in culture and politics, between the Walloons and Flemish – two regional divisions so averse to one another’s method of operation that it can often appear that Belgium is scythed in half across its heart. So distorted are they in their belief of the superiority of their language and identity that national politics can be thrown into unworkable disarray upon an uprising of particular anger, as there was in 2007, explaining why there is such a complex system of six governments in only the 34th largest European nation by land mass and the 13th largest by population – its 30,510 km2 housing 11,250,000 or so people, or each km2, on average, laying host to 372 Flemish, Walloons or Brusselèèrs. There has been distinct competition between the guard of Liège, the pride of Wallonia, and Flanders’ Antwerp and Brussels (an autonomous but largely Flemish Northern city) on the football field throughout the history of Belgian football, and while the supporting cast from Ghent, Genk and Bruges, all from Flanders, have led for Northern dominance in the past 70 years, there is no love lost in the North-South rivalries of yesteryear. Despite the fact that, since 1953, only 10 of the 64 Pro League titles on offer have gone to Walloon sides – or to a Walloon side, considering Standard Liège have won them alone – and Brussels’ Anderlecht ran out victors on 30 of the other occasions, Southern football has not yet been hindered in its ability to produce the exports the national side requires to continually flourish, with relevant current born-and-raised products including Axel Witsel, Eden and Thorgan Hazard, Nacer Chadli, Kevin Mirallas, Thomas Meunier and Laurent Ciman, while Christian Benteke, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was trained at Liège.
Having cooperated closely with the English, French and Dutch Football Associations during the early years of their existence, the UBSSA were, unsurprisingly, alongside their French counterparts, one of the establishing members of FIFA just three weeks after the nation had played its first ever match, a diplomatic 3-3 draw with the French in the Brussels district of Uccle that defined Paris’ minor neighbours as a definite sporting force. Their leading position on the continent, far from undermined by the atrocities that the First World War brought to Flanders’ expanses of poppy fields, was further confirmed by a Gold Medal-winning performance in front of home fans at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics – what was, prior to the World Cup, the pinnacle of the international form of the sport – although, on the subject of pinnacles, the Belgians were eliminated in the first rounds of all three inaugural 1930’s World Cups. If the pre-World War Two period had appeared, however, a testing one for Belgian football, then the 1950’s and 1960’s, with only one World Cup appearance, days after becoming one of the founding states of UEFA, in 1954, saw the nation slump to lower competitive levels amongst increased continental and global revolution; even if remarkable victories against then-reigning World Champions West Germany and Brazil in 1954 and 1963 respectively, in addition to a perhaps greater feat in the 1956 upset of the Mighty Magyars – the Hungarian side who should have written themselves into history as 1954 global victors – that spelled the sacking of the pioneer of socialist football, Gusztáv Sebes, and the collapse of the Hungarian Aranycsapat, or Golden Squad. Due to their proficiency in such high-profile friendlies, the Belgians even gained themselves the self-deprecating title of the “world champion of the friendlies” in this era, one that wouldn’t, however, stick in successive decades.
Inaugural World Cup and European Championship tournament victories arrived in 1970 and 1972 respectively against El Salvador and Hungary, as in the latter they finished third of four nations competing, having defeated World Champions Italy to even book a place at their home tournament, while their next taste of tournament football ended in succumbing to defeat in the 1980 Euro Final to an almighty West German XI, marking the beginning of the first ‘golden generation’ years the nation experienced under the coaching of Guy Thys. His erudite stewardship saw them defeat, again, the reigning world champions – on this occasion Argentina -, in their first match of the 1982 World Cup, while being inflicted with revenge four years later, as the Diego Maradona-inspired South Americans overcame the brave Belgians in front of a 115,000-strong audience in the sweltering Semi-Final conditions of the Estadio Azteca. If only to prove they weren’t one-trick ponies, the Belgians qualified, during and after Thys’ era, for six successive World Cups from Spain ’82 to Japan & South Korea ’02, mostly realising impressive second-round potential and confirming themselves as amongst Europe’s leading beacons of the sport throughout, even as superior generations passed. Guess what? They even defeated reigning world champions in this period – France, prior to the 2002 World Cup.
A 2005 defeat of Greece – the 2004 European Championship victors – could do little to quell national disquiet, nevertheless, in the event of a intermittence of both playing and managerial talent, as the national side failed to qualify for three successive Euros, in addition to the German and South African World Cup finals; a gaping spell lacking the inspiration of even a couple of stars prior to the gradual emergence and transition of the 2007 European Under-21 Championship squad to senior football. From this squad, notably, came 21 individuals capped at the senior stage – the only two devoid of such an opportunity from the 23 being the back-up and third-choice goalkeepers – including Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin Mirallas, Axel Witsel and *sigh* Marouane Fellaini, compared to the ten who were picked at a senior level by England, with only Gary Cahill, Joe Hart, Leighton Baines, James Milner and Ashley Young worthy of reference. With the exception of the then-teenager Witsel, all of these Belgians were joined at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, where the nation would finish Bronze Medal runners-up, by future senior captain Vincent Kompany and Mousa Dembélé, creating a nucleus of gifted individuals those involved in the long-term strategy of the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB) trusted to develop and thrive off of their close continued collaboration. Such results were not primarily obvious upon the arrival of such a renovated spine, however, and falling to defeat in a 2009 World Cup Qualifier, having made the long haul to Armenia, proved the very depths of national despair, far beyond the embarrassment which had usurped all emotional connection to the nation’s pastime in the years previous.
Deciding upon a total upheaval of the malaise that had festered for almost a decade upon his assumption of the caretaker’s managerial position, Marc Wilmots, in 2012, drafted in the wider group of 20 to 30 Premier League, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga players we all respect today, with immediate results. Freed from the chains of expectation – considering they could hardly fare any worse than their immediate predecessors – these promising, yet unheralded, physical specimens of early-20’s age romped to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in such ease that it captured the global media’s attention and confounded all home expectation to boot. An ultimately disappointing quarter-final defeat to Argentina, the remarkable testament to such a significant 24-month transformation, brought the end to what many wildly imagined would be the seizure of global dominance in the absence of clear trendsetters at the time, yet it was reinforced by a consecutive qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championship so ruthless in certain examples that it led them, mystifyingly – even for Wilmots and his squad – to a world number one ranking in October 2015.
It is only natural, however, that with such performance and appreciation of talent, there comes the reactionary realisation of title-winning potential. For Hungary, in 1954, it became paralytic when fatally concocted with the overwhelming sense of Soviet, yet more broadly Communist, ideological pressure that bore down upon the clearly battered ankle of Ferenc Puskás alone, while in more recent examples, Brazil’s 2014 campaign, which hinged on the fitness and form of poster boy Neymar, was obliterated by the ruthless Germans in consequence of a visceral quarter-final with Colombia, in which Juan Zúñiga’s hurtling knee spelled the departure of the Barcelona star upon its connection with such a coveted lower spine. Particularly amongst young players, expectation is a challenge that few can surmount without sufficient trials even at club level, yet without regeneration, even a tightly-bonded collection of individuals can struggle to correct the misdemeanours of the past, such is the culpability of the will for revenge.
Everything has to be tempered in the mental respects of the competitor; rarely are emotions expressed by unassailable legends of the sport until they receive full confirmation of their triumph, demonstrated objectively by the pragmatic, learned Roger Federer at every stage of a Wimbledon tournament all expectation has been heaped upon his shoulders to win. Having played with fire, and had their fingers defiantly burned for repeating such foolish moves, Belgium’s artillery should have taken responsibility upon themselves to remain level-headed when it comes to action in next year’s World Cup. In many respects, this makes the KBVB’s decision to hire Roberto Martinez, alongside long-term assistant Graeme Jones and surprise package Thierry Henry, from last autumn all the more intriguing, as Martinez is hardly a manager famed for his control of a squad’s mental advancements and response to adversity, nor his handling of the repercussive egos of such respected talent, especially compared to the more obvious candidates if prioritising such aims, where Arsene Wenger, Gerardo Martino or Marco Bielsa could have prospered.
Martinez’s inherent advantage, if ascertaining the natural playing approach of a squad largely borne from the higher reaches of the Premier League, is that he comprehends the tactical horizons of a vast majority of his players, and will not act as an immovable force in such an impasse as could be likely with other higher-profile options. Seldom is he the fountain of controversial comment, or even devoid of his trademark definitely-hiding-something grin, and is in many respects well suited to the international scene. Whether he prioritises the pursuit of long-term ambition is uncertain, as his career, while progressing at each opportunity, has a beleaguered aura around it, featuring Swansea, Wigan and Everton, presiding over League One promotion, an impossible FA Cup victory and a fifth-placed Premier League finish in such spells. Yet each are achievements undermined by wider circumstance; in the Swans’ fans revolt against the Spaniard upon his departure to Wigan, the relegation of his Wigan side days after the cup accomplishment and the mid-table slump of an unconfident and uninspired Everton side lacking sufficient investment that led to his inevitable sacking. Personally, I am a believer in the old adage that it takes one to know one in the case of an international manager, and for Martinez to have never played at a level anywhere close to representing his nation, his authority is pre-empted to have been undermined in such a star-studded dressing room. It is no coincidence that, if ignoring the pre-1954 and pre-professional history of the World Cup, only on three occasions has a side coached by a manager uninitiated with the international game, in terms of their playing days at youth or senior level, lifted the World Cup – Brazil’s sides of 1958, 1994 and 2002 being these anomalies.
If it is Belgium’s ultimate ambition to win the World Cup, there is scarcely a superior opportunity presenting itself than next summer’s World Cup; by which time Simon Mignolet, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Kompany, Radja Nainggolan, Fellaini, Mirallas, Dembélé and Dries Mertens, though not all starters, will all be the wrong side of 30, Eden Hazard, Courtois, Kevin De Bruyne, Thomas Meunier and Lukaku will all be approaching their peaks following hopefully successful Champions League campaigns, and the buds of a subsequent generation in Youri Tielemans, Leander Dendoncker, Yannick Carrasco, Michy Batshuayi and Divock Origi, all 23 or under, will stamp indelible impressions upon the history books.
Martinez is only so fortunate to have such an embarrassment of riches at his disposal in a prompt of response at the depths of despair attributable to former KBVB Technical Director Michel Sablon in 2006. Sablon, inspired by his studies of close neighbours France, Germany and the Netherlands, initiated a tactical evolution in drawing up a 4-3-3 formation for every youth side that would eventually enable every potential future senior team representative to be fully assured in the particular demands of such a highly demanding and fluid structure. This was followed by reforms that saw results rendered irrelevant at the youth stage, with league tables even abolished at some age levels in order to stimulate development over competition, and players barred from returning down age groups once they have progressed, for example, from under-18 to under-21 competition, encouraging every individual to challenge themselves physiologically, as well as psychologically, without the disjointed effects of a system reliant on two or three star players performing for numerous age groups. These simple, yet profound, alterations to a moribund national establishment allowed the generation we see today to arrive at the eight centralised development centres, where many remaining members first met and sparked invaluable friendships that endure today after tests from under-16 level all the way up to senior – unless they were fast-tracked from teenage groups in the manner of Courtois, Kompany and Vertonghen. It appears remarkable that such continuity has survived the separation of these individuals to all corners of Europe, but in a nation reliant on exports for the invaluable exposure for players to physical and mental tests against Champions League-quality opposition, let alone the televisual motivation for future generations and the financial rewards that can be ploughed back into funding academy expansion at the likes of Anderlecht and Standard Liège, making assurances over the continuity of the conveyer-belt, such circumstance is natural.
Belgium itself will never have the capabilities for a considerable few more than its current 34 professional clubs in its geographical reality, but if it can continue to ensure its top talents can realise potential in the Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga, Europe’s five key divisions where all but ten of the last 36 players to represent their nation are based, then Europe’s lowlands should remain relevant on the continental stage, with ‘golden generation’ a phrase consigned to the past, assuming those who reinforce this gradually fading one adopt their roles with similar poise. Many nations of comparable geographical circumstance will long for the reality of modern Belgian football, yet lacking quite the population density, the adept financial management, access to facilities, proximity to genetically gifted naturalised athletes in a nation well-versed in the necessities and benefits of migration, lack of overall competition from alterative competitive pastimes – cycling and athletics, being the other popular recreations in Belgium, being incredibly demanding individual sports with far from the potential financial rewards of football – or culture centred around a history of global overachievement – sporting or otherwise – it is impossible to perceive another in Belgium’s ilk arriving on the competitive international scene. Unique circumstances, over recent years, innumerable decades and a short few centuries, have delivered the melting pot of immeasurable talent that the small crossroads of North-Western Europe now boasts, and for such an endearing nation to continue to upset the odds it will take a few more of such circumstances. What the ramifications of Lukaku’s move could be for the future of their sport are as yet unfounded, yet the appreciation of the fruits of such a healthy system, to the extent that his exploits alone will have the scrutiny of a bona fide global icon, pay testament to the advancement of the Belgian system in such a short timeframe. Daring to observe the opposite direction of time, there is still far more to be achieved…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!