A new breed of footballing stars are quietly making their mark on European football. As these stars continue to progress, it’s clear that it won’t be long before Belgium are dining at international football’s top table.
International football is said to represent the pinnacle of any football player’s career. When one casts a thought over the true powerhouses of international football, teams such as Brazil, Argentina, England, Germany, spring to mind. Pele, Maradona, Hurst, Beckenbauer, the list of truly great footballers is one that is dominated by players from the traditional ‘superpowers’ of international football. However, football is changing and a new group of talented young footballers are coming to the fore. Constantly overshadowed by its overpowering bigger brothers, Belgium is emerging from the wilderness.
Situated between the footballing strongholds of France and Germany, Belgium is ready to make its mark on international football. With a number of talented young players at the disposal of the national team, the future of the ‘Red Devils’ has never looked so promising. In a country famed for its sprouts, a new dish is ready to be served. With Marc Wilmots as head chef, footballing success looks like it will be on the menu for years to come.
A thriving domestic league is often seen as a key ingredient to success at international level, e.g. Spain, France, etc. Parallels can be made between the state of a country’s domestic league, and the level at which their international team plays. Take Spain for instance; domestically, La Liga houses some of the world’s best teams, while internationally, La Roja will go down as one of the greatest sides in history. Sadly, Belgium has not enjoyed a fraction of the success of their European counterparts.
Belgium’s domestic league is one that has had many ups and downs. Although currently ranked by UEFA as the 12th best league in Europe, its history is one that is marked with financial irregularities and foul play. In 1984, an investigation by the Brussels District Attorney found that there was a criminal underbelly present in Belgian football. A bribery scandal was unearthed, leading to the suspension and fining of players and clubs. This scandal had implications for the financial future of Belgian football, as banks became hesitant to hand out loans to clubs.
Belgian football suffered for a number of years due to the scandal, even setting up a business model to combat the impending meltdown. However, the business model became obsolete in 1995 when the infamous Bosman Rule came into effect.
Finance continued to trouble the Belgian league at the turn of the millennium, culminating in the demotion of two teams to the third division (2004) after being denied premier division licenses. Belgian clubs continued to suffer and the outlook looked bleak. However, the arrival of a new mega-bucks television deal in 2002 was a saving grace, as it confirmed the long-term future of the Jupiler Pro League.
In 1997 the television rights for the Belgian domestic league were a measly €13 million. However, they increased fivefold just five years later when a deal was agreed with VTM, RTBF and Canal. Teams would now earn €15 million each per season, in stark contrast to the €2-3 million earned in the late nineties. This much-needed cash-injection allowed clubs to plan for the future and invest in new facilities. Standard Liege opened the Academie Robert Louis Dreyfus in 2007, which became the flagship for developing domestic football. Other teams followed suit and the Belgian Jupiler Pro League began to reap the benefits. Although it is struggling to shake off the ‘stepping-stone’ league tag, (i.e. a league in which other players use to get noticed by the bigger European clubs, e.g. Cheick Tiote, Gervinho) the pool of talent continues to improve at an alarming rate. There is no doubting that the conveyor belt of Belgian football will continue to run for many years to come.
The stability that the 2002 television deal provided has unsurprisingly coincided with the development of the most talented Belgian side in modern memory. Talented young footballers continue to sprout (pardon the pun) out of the Belgian polders and the Jupiler Pro League has never been stronger. The international team has become one of the most improved sides in world football, boasting a number of young stars that will undoubtedly continue to make strides. The squad reads like a who’s who of highly talented European footballers, and it is a testament to their success that many have been at the centre of multi-million pound deals. The World Cup in 2014 may come a little too early for the Belgians, but winning Euro 2016 is a realistic target. The squad has strength in depth in all positions and are sure to dominate world football for the next 10-15 years.
In Simon Mignolet they have one of the Premier League’s top goalkeepers. They also have Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois, who at just 20 years of age has established himself as La Liga’s most consistent goalkeeper as a result of some stunning performances on loan at Atletico Madrid.
Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is joined by Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and Arsenal’s Tomas Vermaelen in defence. Bayern Munich’s Daniel Van Buyten also forms part of a resolute group of defenders.
Belgium’s greatest strength lies in their midfield, with the likes of Everton’s Marouane Fellaini and Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele playing starring roles. Zenit St. Petersburg’s €40 million star Axel Witsel is in good company, with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Racing Genk’s experienced Thomas Buffel also donning the Red Devil’s jersey.
Up front, Aston Villa revelation Cristian Benteke is joined by Everton’s Kevin Mirallas and West Brom’s on loan-striker Romelu Lukaku. Dries Mertens of PSV Eindhoven is also available and Eden Hazard’s younger brother, Thorgen, is believed to be one for the future.
Other notable players include Porto’s Steven Defour, Racing Genk’s Jelle Vossen and young Manchester City defender Dedryck Boyota.
As can be seen from the impressive list of players above, Belgian football is on the rise. Having qualified for the European Championships just once since 1984, (as co-host in 2000) and failing to reach the last two World Cups, the drought appears to be over. Marc Wilmots’ side currently lead their qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, having won three and drawn one of their four games. In a group that includes Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Wales and Scotland, the Red Devils know that a place in Rio is within reach.
As mentioned previously, the 2014 World Cup may be a tad premature for this Belgian side but Euro 2016 is a real possibility and at 16/1 Belgium represents great value. A new footballing superpower has arrived, and it is time the world took notice.