Say the word Belgium to a person a few years ago and they will think beer, buns and probably cows. However, say it now and any football hipster will tell you it’s the international base of all that’s right with football. We as fans like to support one cool team to go along with the team that has been forced upon us. This second team provides a glimmer a hope and success to counteract the depressing reality of our local team. Most people would choose and I’m guessing here, Borussia Dortmund & Belgium.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment in time where the powers that be in Belgium decided enough was enough. The time that Belgium created the blueprint that would see them go from mundane, run of the mill footballing nation, to serious contenders for honours.
Most people would lean towards the disastrous Euro 2000 campaign. On home soil Belgium were given the opportunity to show the watching world that Belgian football was in a relatively decent state of health. Aspirations were high. I was 13 years old when Euro 2000 was on and specifically remember picking Belgium as my second team, a selection which both England and Coventry City will tell you is more of a curse.
It started so well. A 2-1 win vs. Sweden and the Belgians were up and running, they played some lovely football, in front of a passionate home support. This was followed by an expected 2-0 loss to Italy, nothing to be ashamed of. What struck the killer blow was the 2-0 defeat to Turkey. Belgium were out. 1 win in 3 at their own tournament. They were humiliated, however, a large proportion of Belgians were far from surprised.
A solid World Cup 2002 campaign saw them qualify for Japan/South Korea at the expense of the Scots and Belgium once again had another chance to perform for the waiting crowd on the world stage. They were handed arguably the easiest group of the tournament being placed alongside Russia, Japan and Tunisia. Getting out of the group was the minimum requirement. Draws with Japan and Tunisia were masked by a win against Russia and they set themselves up for a second round match vs. Brazil. Which they expectedly lost 2-0. A successful tournament for a nation like Belgium we would all agree, but one man had already decided that qualifying from a World Cup group should not be the ultimate aim. Football was moving on, and Belgium were being left behind.
This man was Michel Sabon.
Michel Sabon at the time was Technical Director of Belgian Football and the man responsible for the magnificent upturn in Belgium’s system. Sabon was well aware how far Belgium were behind countries such as France, Holland and Germany and that competing with the likes of these countries, with the system that was in place, was near on impossible. In 2002, Sabon began meeting with French FA representatives, along with their Dutch and German counterparts to look closely at their existing models and began to make page after ages of notes, what he was writing down would shake Belgian Football to its very core.
Sabon hired a group of people who all focused their attentions on three specific groups. Club Football. National Football and The School Coaching System. All 3 needed to buy into the new model, get 1 right and the other 2 will follow.
Sabon then approached clubs in Belgium. starting with Anderlecht and Standard Liege and fundamentally told them to play a different way. Sabon asked all these clubs to adopt a 4-3-3 system within in all their youth squads below Under 18’s. Can you imagine this happening in England? The FA approaching clubs and telling them in no uncertain terms to coach there kids in a certain way, to play a certain formation. It just wouldn’t happen. Is this because the FA is weak, and holds absolutely no power or control over the English League, or that the Premier League has grown out of all levels of control and answers to no-one? You decide.
Sabon wanted to portray the message that at Under 18s levels and below, winning was not everything. Winning is an extremely important part of the game, the most important at the top levels, but when it comes to player development it is all in the coaching system, it’s trusting what works in the long run and being brave enough to stick it out, even though results are not instant.
Sabon then introduced an idea which I once muted to Pete in the office, which makes this officially my idea. The Belgian FA urged clubs to play 5 a side games at youth level, 7 a side as you get older and a delayed introduction to 11 a side games. I am a huge HUGE fan of this method. Why does an 8-year-old lad need to be playing on a full size pitch? The first time a few passes go astray then the temptation to lump it up field is too great, this can’t happen on a 5 a side pitch, it encourages quick thinking, quick feet, and removes the easy option of kicking it as far as you can. It coaches.
The Belgian FA also proactively moved promising young players up to the next level of competition as soon as possible even though this had a direct impact on the Belgian National Team, who subsequently failed to qualify for the next 5 tournaments.
Sabon has been quick to admit that Belgium have been blessed with a (cliché alert!) ‘Golden Generation’ but is under no illusions that the coaching that these players were provided was instrumental. Belgian football can now boast Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Man Utd’s Marouane Fellaini, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Spurs trio Dembele, Vertonghen and Chadli. These guys play regularly for seriously good Premier League teams.
It comes as no surprise that other countries FA’s have started copying this blueprint. The Scottish FA are working extremely hard to begin implementing elements. They have already invested £20 million in performance schools and indoor training centres and has begun working closely with clubs to blood youngsters and help regain some pride in the Scottish game. In all honesty, clubs like Aberdeen & Dundee really have nothing to lose with Celtics painfully one-sided domination of the league. It might work, it might not, but at least they are pro-actively looking at improvements. I fear the lack of power the FA has over clubs in this country rules out any form of implementation here. The FA holds little oomph to any decisions that are made with their national league and seems to only be referred to when deciding how long players should be banned. The FA needs to focus on clubs who already have successful academies in place, like Southampton, and approach clubs along the lines of Norwich, Stoke and Villa to work alongside for the good of the english game.
Greg Dyke….It’s over to you.
Before I sign off, just so it truly hits home what has happened to Belgian football over the past 10 years I want to leave you with the team that played against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup, against the team that has played the majority of the qualifiers in the lead up to Brazil 2014.
GK – Geert De Vlieger – Willem II
DF – Nico Van Kerckhoven – FC Schalke
DF – Jacky Peeters – Gent
DF – Daniel Van Buyten – Marseille
MF – Timothy Simons – Club Brugge
MF – Bart Goor – Hertha Berlin
MF – Johan Walem – Standard Liege
MF – Gert Verheyen – Club Brugge
MF – Yves Vanderhaeghe – Anderlecht
FW – Marc Wilmots – FC Schalke
FW – Mbo Mpenze – Mouscron (?!)
GK – Thibaut Courtois – Atletico Madrid (on loan from Chelsea)
DF – Jan Vertonghen – Tottenham
DF – Vincent Kompany – Man City
DF – Thomas Vermaelan – Arsenal
DF – Toby Alderweireld – Atletico Madrid
MF – Axel Witsel – Zenit St. Petersburg
MF – Moussa Dembele – Tottenham
MF – Marouane Fellaini – Man Utd
FW – Kevin Mirallas – Everton
FW – Eden Hazard – Chelsea
FW – Christian Benteke – Aston Villa
The face that Simon Mignolet, Steven Defour, Kevin De Bruyne, Nacer Chadli and Romelu Lukaku have had to settle for a place on the bench is truly frightening.