A glance at the top of FIFA rankings this month gives us an unusual sight: the world’s best national team over the past four years is – Belgium. For the first time ever, that small European country managed to make the top of the list, and it will surely go into next year’s European Championship as one of the favorites to win the tournament.
Only two and a half years since it was well out of the top 50 and on the back of five straight unsuccessful qualifying campaigns, the team coached by its former great Marc Wilmots is now as talented as any in Europe.
Most of their players are in the English top flight, but some of them proved their worth in other leagues, including Italy, Spain, Germany, Russia and Portugal. Last season Belgians were voted players of the season in both the Premier League (Eden Hazard) and Bundesliga (Kevin De Bruyne).
Both of them are household names wherever football is followed, but the true strength of the Belgian team is in its depth, given that nearly every position is covered by two or even more players of top quality. From Courtois and Mignolet in goal, all the way to Benteke, Lukaku and Origi, all vying for a single attacking place.
When discussing the enormous strength in depth this team has, we must consider the size of the Belgian population – 11.2 million. England has a pool of over four times as many people to choose from, France and Italy are more than five times bigger, while the German population is seven times that of their small neighbors.
Even the Dutch, their other neighbors and a rather small nation compared to other European powers, can count on 50 percent more people. All this makes the Belgian renaissance even more impressive.
A small town called Tubize is situated within Valloon Brabant, just south of the capital city of Brussels and less than three miles away from the famous Waterloo site. Back in 2001 the National training centre was built there, using the profits made a year earlier, when Belgium and the Netherlands hosted the European Championship.
That was the turning point. Ever since then, all Belgian youth teams adopted the offensive 4-3-3 as their preferred style of play, abandoning the then prevalent counterattacking philosophy. Soon after, in 2006, “La vision de formation de l’URBSFA” was published, a blueprint that stands at the very center of Belgium’s unprecedented success.
Its author was Michel Sablon, the highly regarded technical director of Belgian FA, having served as assistant manager at three World Cups. Sablon’s plan was simple: in order to repair the highest level of Belgian football, the process must start at a grassroots level, with children aged 6 to 9.
Success didn’t come too quickly. A nation used to seeing its team compete regularly in major competitions (by 2002 Belgium had taken part in 10 World Cups and four European Championships) had to endure a decade of utter failure before all the pieces came into place.
Failing to make it to a single tournament between 2002 and 2012 led to an extremely poor showing the in FIFA rankings. From 2004 to 2011 Belgium didn’t break into the top 40, and even sank as low as number 71 in 2007. Three years later they registered the worst drop in the world, after going from 48th place in the rankings to 68th in a single year.
The hardest part of Sablon’s work was to convince the club academies to join in and adopt the reforms. He got help from the University, which filmed and analyzed more than 1500 youth games, identifying the problems. Once that the reform process began, it was unstoppable.
By 2007 the first visible rewards were there, as the U17’s made the last four of the EURO for the first time. That team had Christian Benteke and Eden Hazard in its ranks, while the U23’s that were 4th at the 2008 Olympics looked like a nucleus of the current side, with the likes of Kompany, Dembele, Fellaini, Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Mirallas.
Success at a youth level was, however, never considered necessary, as those teams were looked upon only as a stepping stone towards the greater goal: the senior national team. As soon as a player was promoted to an older side, he would never be sent back again, even if that meant that the junior side would have a better shot at success in tournaments.
While domestic clubs were reluctant to implement the new system, it was relatively simple to bypass them altogether, as players were able to move abroad at a very young age. Nine out of the 23 players in last years World Cup didn’t play a single senior match in Belgium.
Hazard and Origi moved just across the French border to Lille OSC, Vermaelen, Vertonghen and Alderweireld joined the famous Ajax setup, while Januzaj signed for Manchester United. But the others were truly homegrown, with the academies of Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Racing Genk doing particularly well.
After assisting the two previous national team coaches, Marc Wilmots took the reigns of senior national team in May 2012 and the following month Belgium dropped to 54th position in FIFA rankings. On their way to Brazil they were drawn from the third pot, behind both Croatia and Serbia. By the end of 2013 Wilmots’ side was world number four, having made it into the first pot for the World Cup proper. What made it possible was a remarkable run of nine wins and a draw, with no defeats, in a fairly difficult group which also included the likes of Wales and Scotland and had no traditional outsiders.
Wilmots was one of the key members of the Belgian team that managed to reach four consecutive World Cups, having peaked at his last one in 2002, when his three goals and overall performance led to him being elected in the team of the tournament. Wilmots retired immediately afterwards, and it took his return to the team in a new capacity to help them qualify for a major tournament again.
Nicknamed “Kampfschwein“ ( “The Fighting Pig“) Wilmots’ fighting spirit made him very popular among Belgian supporters. He is often percieved as weak spot in the current team, but the players firmly stand by him. To quote captain Vincent Kompany:
“Our manager was always a fighter in his spirit. He was always a winner. He was proud to be there for his country. The group has caught on to those.”
By the time Belgian team started its rapid ascent to the top, the creator of the reform that made it possible was no longer with the Belgian FA. Michel Sablon retired in 2012, at the age of 65. Earlier this year he was hired by the Singaporean FA to create a similar plan for football development in the country.
The previous Golden Age of the “Rode Duivels“ was in the early to mid ‘80s, when they managed to play a big role in four consecutiv major tournaments. A silver from EURO 1980, when they were beaten to the title by Germany, was followed by tenth place at the 1982 World Cup. Two years later they missed out on the EURO semifinals by letting a 2-0 lead to Denmark slip, but they saved the best for last.
In the 1986 World Cup Belgium managed to win the match of the tournament, a 4-3 extra-time win against the formidable Soviets in the Round of 16, before eliminating Spain to get to their first WC semis.
Yet another Maradona solo show was enough to stop them, but nevertheless that summer is still considered the heyday of Belgian football history.
Two major factors contributed greatly to their consistent success. The late ‘70s and early ‘80s was the most successful period for Belgian clubs, with RSC Anderlecht winning five European trophies between 1976 and 1983, and Club Brugge losing two cup finals to Liverpool in 1976 and 1978. Back then only two foreign players were allowed in a squad, so that bulk of these players were eligible for Belgium.
At the same time, they enjoyed a period of unusual stability as a national team with the great Guy Thys spending 13 years on the national team bench after taking up duty in 1976. Even before him, Contant Vanden Stock and Raymond Goethals were the only two Belgian managers over an 18-year span, meaning that the Red Devils had only three managers from 1958 to 1989.
Jean-Marie Pfaff proved to be first in a long line of great Belgian goalkeepers, while players like Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans, Erwin Vandenbergh, Frank Vercauteren and later Franky Van der Elst and Enzo Scifo had the ability to compete with world’s finest teams.
As good as they all were, there is little doubt that the current crop of players is more talented and has tremendous strength in depth. The World Cup quarterfinals were once considered a tremendous success, so last year’s lukewarm reaction only emphasizes how big the expectations are now. The next three major competitions will prove if Belgium can indeed be at the top of their game when it matters.