A new and potentially exciting chapter could be about to be written in the history of Belgian football. Mark the date: the European championships in France from June 10-July 10. After years of waiting could this really be the moment when Belgium’s national side lives up to all our expectations and actually wins some silverware?
What cannot be denied is that the journey the national side has made in recent years is, particularly given the size of the country, quite remarkable. Let’s just recall that Belgium goes into the Euros ranked no.1 in the world (ahead of Argentina, 2nd, and Spain, 3rd).
Its stars play for Europe’s biggest clubs including Kevin De Bruyne (Man. City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Marouane Fellaini (Man. Utd) and Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea).
Many may ponder how this apparently sudden success has come about.
Perhaps just as significant is that the team comprises a mixture of Flemish and Wallonian players, as well as those of non-Belgian origin, such as Christian Benteke who was born in Kinshasa.
So, how has all this come about?
Well, to answer that you have to start with the innovative coaching methods introduced 15 years ago under the supervision of people like Bob Browaeys.
He is head coach of Belgium’s youth national teams and last year won the bronze medal at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in Chile. When it comes to the Belgian approach to youth development, there is none better.
Pooling the talents of the 420,000 registered players at over 2,000 clubs and 18,000 teams in linguistically and culturally divided Belgium is no easy task.
Bob, though, is among those behind the successful national youth system that has produced many of the current “golden generation”, which was launched after what he calls Belgium’s “disastrous” showing in the 1998 World Cup in France when it was eliminated in the first round.
He told The Brussels Times, “We started by looking at what they were doing in France and Netherlands and analysing the quality of our players and teams at the time who were playing what I would call a very old fashioned type of football. There was little in the way of structure or tactics and every coach did what he wanted to do”.
The idea was to generate a “vision” for Belgian football and this, he recalls, emerged from one particular “brain storming” session involving sports teachers and coaches from Flanders and Wallonia one day in August 1999.
What transpired was nothing short of a revolution in the way the game was (and continues to be) taught at youth level.
“It was a totally different approach to coaching and one we implemented in schools and national youth teams”, said Bob, who, after studying at Gent University, played professional football, albeit for just a couple of years.
One innovation was the introduction of a “talent identification system” under which the most skilful young players were fast tracked into the national coaching programme.
Among the beneficiaries were players like Hazard, who played for Tubize up to the age of 14 (before leaving to hone his skills in Lille in France), Fellaini and De Bruyne.
Looking to the future, Bob believes it will be a “challenge” for Belgium to maintain the impressive progress made over recent years but remains quietly optimistic, saying, “You have to remember it’s only a small country so, yes, it will be a challenge to stay at the top. We have to compete with the likes of Germany, Spain and England, each of whom have ten times the potential for developing young talent. The nation has to be realistic, but we will continue to do our best”.
While he appeals to clubs in Belgium to continue investing in academies he adds, “That is up to them, of course. However, I hope the success of the national side will inspire clubs to invest in youth”.
His sentiments are shared by Jim Boyce, UEFA Youth and Amateur Football Committee chairman who said, “If you take Belgium, they were struggling for quite a few years but they are becoming a force in European football again. They have been building for quite a few years to produce a team with players who have come through the U17 and U19 age groups. It shows you the benefits”.
One possible spin-off of all this is the way such success has helped “unify” what can sometimes appear to be a splintered country.
A current TV campaign for the Red Devils contains the “One Team, One Nation, All in Red” message−no bad thing as Belgium readies itself to live up to its billing as one of the favourites for the Euros.
Opinion on the extent to which success on the sporting field can paper over some of the political divisions in a country like Belgium varies but Olivier Hanrion, a journalist for RTBF radio, is firmly in the camp that feels it has a valuable role to play.
Hanrion said, “One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Belgium was that the football team is one of the remaining cement of the country. In my opinion, this is even more true since the team has become very competitive”.
Further insight comes from Brussels-based journalist Leo Cendrowicz who has written widely on the fortunes of Belgian soccer over the years. Looking ahead to the Euros, he says, “We’ll probably have more flags this year, and more sticker books. Football has that effect. As for what it’s like in the changing room, or on the pitch: they just seem to get on with it, and ignore whatever language tensions there are on the outside”.
But arguably one of the best placed to answer such a question is Pieter Maenhout, Fan Relationship Manager for the Belgian Football Association, who plays a key role in bridging any gaps between Flemish and Walloon supporters.
He says, “It is not our purpose to ‘unite’ the nation, of course, but to help everyone, irrespective of where they are from in Belgium, to enjoy supporting the Red Devils.”
“I do not know if we are able to bring the two sides together. Belgium is not the only country where you have different linguistic and cultural communities. What I do know is that when the fans come to games, all possible differences, whatever they be, are forgotten and the supporters have a great time together”.
“The atmosphere at games, with sold out stadia, is amazing these days and Flemings and Wallonians stand next to one another, singing each other’s football songs and not necessarily in their own language”.
The same applies, he says, when Belgian fans travel to watch the Red Devils in other countries such as France where he expects “tens of thousands” of Belgian fans to descend upon for this summer’s Euros.
Pieter, who is based in Brussels, says the Red Devil’s Fan Club, called 1895 after the year the Belgian FA was formed, has 25,000 members split between 89 official fan clubs. There is equal membership, he says, between fans from Flanders and Walloon.
“This sense of togetherness is shared by the players as well,” he says. “Some of the current team have been playing together since they were ten years old and are good friends-and it doesn’t matter if they are Flemish or Wallonian”.
One thing that is undeniable is the way the national team’s success has helped integrate minorities: children of immigrants or former refugees are now representing Belgium.
It is hoped players like Fellaini and Benteke, who grew up playing football on gravel in a rundown suburb of Liege, will be an inspiration to others like them in years to come. Both have multi-cultural roots, which is the case for several of the players who manager Marc Wilmots will take to France. They are the figures that can help unite what can often feel like a fragmented country.
Looking to the future, Belgium appears well placed with its under-17s finishing third in last year’s World Cup in Chile.
The best Belgium has ever achieved at international level was reaching the 1986 World Cup semi finals where it went out to Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Hopes are high that in France this summer, Belgium can go one better-with the backing of all Belgians.
By Martin Banks