Every few years a country not usually associated with troubling the traditional ‘super-powers’ of the game produces a plethora of exciting talent that briefly shines bright in the football firmament. Usually this is due to serendipity, a fortuitous set of circumstances that results in several of their all-time best players all coming to fruition at the same time in their countries history.
Notable examples of this phenomenon include the Romanian side of the early-90s, a newly-independent Croatia proudly unleashing a sensational collection of footballers onto the world stage a few years later, and Poland, for a sustained period throughout the 1970s and nudging into the following decade.
Once the careers of Hagi, Suker, and Lato – along with their supremely gifted supporting casts – fade through age or injury however then so too does the standing of their nation’s football team, as they duly slide back down the FIFA rankings.
Belgium have already experienced having such a ‘golden generation’ with their 1986 side, that finished a very impressive fourth during that year’s World Cup with players such as Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets, and their star playmaker and kingpin Enzo Scifo pulling the proverbial strings. En route to the semi-finals (where they eventually succumbed to the Maradona-inspired Argies) they beat a highly-fancied Soviet Union outfit and Spain.
Yet there are increasing signs that this footballing back-water, a country famous for chocolate, being boring, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, is slowly establishing a side that might go on to eclipse their eighties predecessors. And in doing so become the rarest of football beasts – an international side of traditionally limited repute treating us to two great teams from differing eras.
Belgium are currently ranked 57th in the world and, barring a miracle, are unlikely to qualify for next years European Championships. They are also encumbered with a head coach, Georges Leekens, who doesn’t seem to know what formation to play and who to select.
So far, so not so good.
They do however have an astonishing array of extremely-gifted youngsters who – if the Belgium Football Association are ambitious enough to soon replace Leekens with a better qualified, perhaps more high profile, gaffer – could be moulded into a formidable prospect for 2014 and onwards.
Currently between the sticks stands Silvio Proto, a decent enough keeper but not someone who’s on any big club’s shopping list. His present understudy though, Simon Mignolet, is a much more encouraging proposition. After ably deputising for Craig Gordon at Sunderland this season he briefly kept the Scot out of the first XL on his return from injury with some scintillating displays. At 22 he has a bright future and will surely be Belgium’s number one for years to come.
At the back the vice-captaincy is shared between Daniel Van Buyten of Bayern (who, although now in his thirties, would still be available for 2014) and the imperious Vincent Kompany, who is in many people’s eyes the Premiership’s second best defender after Vidic.
Kompany has been consistently outstanding for City this season and last and combines an expert reading of the game with the ability to step out of the back four and play (due to his early-career spells in midfield).
These two alone would secure many a clean sheet against even the very best strike force.
Yet Belgium, a small country with only a population of ten million, is spoilt for choice in this area with several more centre-backs of genuinely high regard.
Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen wears the captain’s armband. Alongside him, playing at right-back due to an over-crowding of quality in the centre, is Vermaelen’s former club team-mate, Ajax’s young and imposing Toby Alderweireld (only 21 and improving year on year).
Behind all these in the queue is Manchester City’s Dedryck Boyata, a lightning-quick defender with a huge future in the game. Club boss Mancini, who values the art of clean sheets more than most, has let many of his young charges out on loan during his tenure. He has steadfastly retained Boyata however and entrusted him with starts in several huge games including last season’s Carling Cup semi against neighbours United (where Boyata excelled).
The midfield is sometimes anchored by yet another Ajax prospect, Jan Vertonghen, still only 23 and another veteran of the Dutch league. Usually however that role is taken by the versatile and highly-rated Axel Witsel of Standard Liege, a player equally adept at ‘mixing it’ and keeping possession with neat link-up play.
Ahead of him roams Steven Defour, the Standard Liege youngster who is constantly linked with the giants of European football (and Aston Villa). Defour can be this side’s Scifo; their schemer in chief and creator for the sublime forward line I have yet to mention.
Alongside Defour is the familiar fuzzy barnet of Fellaini, an imposing freak of a player who has consistently been one of Everton’s better performers during recent seasons.
Defour is only 22 years old yet already they have discovered a new pretender to the throne he has yet to settle arse-grooves into. Kevin de Bruyne of Racing Genk will be Defour’s age when the 2014 World Cup kicks off. And the tournament will make the confident teen a world star.
Incredibly we have yet to mention the finest prospect of all of Belgium’s midfield, indeed the finest prospect the country has ever potentially produced. If the likes of Fellaini, Defour, the nascent potential of De Bruyne haven’t yet swayed you of Belgium’s future success then how about a certain Eden Hazzard. The God of FIFA gamers the world over, Hazzard is a 20-year-old whirling dervish on either wing but his industry and enthusiasm often takes him anywhere and everywhere. He has such an abundance of skills and talent that if he is not propelled into the company of Messi and Ronaldo within a season or two then I will not only eat my hat…I’ll fry a side-order of scarf and gloves to go with it.
So Belgium is undoubtedly blessed with a wealth of creativity in the middle of the park. Yet that has only limited benefit if their forward line is average. Thankfully – or ‘alas’, if you don’t share my excitement of this budding explosion of lowlands talent and are instead fearing a future match-up with England at some point – their strikers are an eruption of flair and youthful brilliance that will inevitably lead very soon to big-money moves and super-stardom.
Presently Belgium are spearheaded by Mousse Dembele, only 23 himself, and an impressive debutant in the Premier League this season with Fulham. Before his unfortunate injury in November he was arguably their best player, immediately settling into the frenetic English pace, and exhibiting some wonderful touches.
Yet Dembele will soon become understudy to two fantastic talents that are quickly emerging onto the international scene.
Yassine El Ghanassy can play anywhere across the front line, is only 20 years old, and is attracting interest from all the usual suspects. Currently learning his trade at Gent he needs to add more goals to his repertoire and is far from the finished article but he has the God-given ability to put the best on their arse and, with his sublime skill and selfless assists, is the perfect foil for Romelu Lukaku.
Lukaku is only 17 – an age where the biggest dilemma is usually what zit to burst first or which pub should you venture into with fake ID. Instead he has to choose between Real Madrid, Manchester United or Chelsea who are all clamouring for his signature. An exceptional, raw talent Lukaku is 6ft 4, has the upper-body build of a heavyweight champion, and yet has the instincts of the most lethal of hit-men. Already the comparison with a young Didier Drogba is becoming tiresome as he forges his own individual stellar career at the very top level of football. He is, without doubt, one of the finest, most exciting young prospects around.
A few years ago the Belgium domestic league, like most other countries, imported their talent from overseas. Then economic factors meant they had to rely, and invest, in their own youth academies. They are now, more than any other nation, reaping the rewards for this enforced policy with an abundance of extremely exciting home-grown players.
Want a dark horse for the 2014 World Cup? Put a tenner on Belgium and tell the bookies that the Cutter sent you.