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Why Belgium Is The Hottest Country In Football

Belgian footballers are starting to dominate the Premier League. So how did a tiny nation manage to produce the most vibrant young players in the world?

Eden Hazard

Marouane Fellaini cannot explain it. At the Everton FC training complex at Finch Farm, south of Liverpool, the 25-year-old musses his fabulous afro halo — one part calm-down-calm-down Scouse, one part Dennis the Menace, one part Macy Gray — and looks profoundly puzzled.

Why exactly is it, I have asked him, that there are so many famous Belgians in the Premier League just now? What precisely has made the Walloon and the Fleming such a desirable footballing commodity?

Fellaini shakes his head some more. He is 6ft 4in plus 6in of hair. There is not a gram of fat on him. His face seems made for sceptical amusement at journalists’ questions. He runs through some of the names we are talking about — “We have Vincent Kompany, Moussa Dembélé, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke” — but still he struggles for a reason why they should all be so good, generally so young, and all over here.

“One thing is we have played together for a long time,” he says, eventually. “A lot of us went to the Olympics in Beijing, stayed together in the village, when we were 18, 19, 20, 21, so we got to know each other very well, and we had a good tournament [finishing fourth, losing semi-finalists behind the Argentina of Messi and Agüero]. So that was maybe the start of it. But I guess also it is luck that this has happened.”

As he talks to me, Fellaini is towering over his Everton teammate and fellow Belgian international Kevin Mirallas, who joined him on Merseyside last summer. They have the look of a double act, Fellaini all clownish irony, Mirallas compact and intense, the slightly impatient straight man.

Mirallas has played for every age group of Belgian football since he was 14. He is direct and focused in both manner and wing play. He doesn’t trust his English so Fellaini, who does, translates for him. He has grown up with some of these players, he says.

He has played with Dembélé of Spurs since he was a kid. He is not surprised about the sudden Belgian takeover of English football, not at all.

“There was always a lot of quality, a very talented group from a young age,” Mirallas says. But of course as both men, well-versed in the habits of post-match interview caution, are quick to say, they haven’t achieved anything yet.

You imagine, watching the Premier League this season, it might not stay that way for long. Assuming Belgium qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil from a tough group that includes Croatia and Serbia as well as Wales, Scotland and Macedonia, given the talents at their disposal they will arrive with a price tag on their side.

When I point out to Fellaini that the current squad is, in terms of combined transfer fees, the third-most valuable in the world behind Brazil and Portugal, he grins and shrugs and says, “Yes, we have hope, but we have to win something first.”

Most of that transfer money has come from the Premier League, with the notable exception of the €40m that Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg FC paid for Axel Witsel, a 24-year-old midfielder with a tackling compulsion and a Bond villain name.

Between them, the Everton pair alone have already commanded fees of more than £20m; Fellaini would likely double that figure were he to move again, as widely expected.

Before speaking to the players, I have clocked both briefly on the training field, Fellaini, with all of the sharp angles and sinew of the distance runner he once wanted to be, displays an affable bruising belligerence.

Mirallas is possessed of a cartoonish level of acceleration, now sprinting, now going into some kind of overdrive that has defenders back-pedalling frantically. They make a dynamic duo. And they are not alone.

At the beginning of this season, curious to see how good the Belgian invaders actually were, I started a fantasy team, “Famous Belgians”, involving the players Fellaini mentioned plus a few others: Simon Mignolet, the Sunderland goalkeeper; Richie de Laet of Leicester and formerly of Manchester United.

By Christmas, despite a few injuries to key players, they were riding high. No Match of the Day of the past couple of seasons has seemed complete without some Belgian-related superlative; about the preternatural composure and positional sense of Kompany and Vermaelen, captains of Manchester City and Arsenal respectively; or the elusiveness and work-rate of Dembélé and the mercurial touch of Hazard, Chelsea’s £32m man; the brute force of Lukaku, still 19, on loan from Chelsea at West Brom; and Benteke, at Aston Villa, quickly established as the twin towers of the West Midlands.

Not to mention, of course, Fellaini himself, whose modest self-assessment as a “defensive midfielder” belies the fact he is also the current centre-forward you would least like to be tasked with marking.

Inevitably, this bunch of players has become known as Belgium’s “golden generation” for a while at home, and now here.

The phrase itself is tarnished, we have heard it so many times before — sometimes to describe a genuine phenomenon: the Spanish World-Cup-winning, Barcelona-based tiki-taka revolutionaries — but more often, parochially, prefaced with the phrase “so-called” when referencing the England team of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and brave John Terry.

A generation that begged the headline “Whatever happened to the likely lads?” in several painful stages. Needless to say, the “golden generation” tag became a burden, another pressure, as footballers like to say.

None of which answers the original question of what exactly creates such game-changing national concentrations of talent? Is it just luck, as it seems to the players who are part of them? Or is something more planned and wilful going on?

If you look to the two most successful “golden generations” of recent years — the French world cup winners of Zidane, Henry and Vieira and the Spanish team of Iniesta and Xavi — you could draw two different conclusions about the shaping forces.

In the case of the Spanish team, it seemed to have been an ingrained technical advance, a new way of playing, as a group of gifted kids who came to their club sides at younger and younger ages learned how to pass the ball.

The system, of possession above all else, of constantly moving the football, was put in place at Barcelona by Johan Cruyff in the early Nineties and pursued ardently by his successors.

If you look at the aforementioned French team, by contrast, what brought about the transformation there was not a new way of playing, but a different idea of national identity, a cultural and political phenomenon.

That team grew from the overdue emergence and embrace of players with African heritage, from the dual-nationality Algerian Zidane, to the Senegal-born Vieira. The team represented triumphantly not a new idea of football but a new idea of France.

The interesting thing about the current Belgian generation is that it seems a product of both these redefining pressures, both of conscious tactical development and a significant cultural shift. For the style, you need to go back 10 or 12 years.

At the turn of the millennium, Belgian football was in something of a crisis, the teams that had been a byword for a certain indefatigable grace in the Eighties, led by Enzo Scifo and Franky Vercauteren, which came within spitting distance of reaching the World Cup final in 1986, were long gone.

After David Platt scored his unlikely last-minute winner at Italia ’90, Belgian football went into a period of underachievement and decline. As co-hosts of the European Championships of 2000, they suffered an ignominious first round exit at the hands of Turkey.

It was at around that point that Michel Sablon, the national technical director of the Belgian FA, decided a blueprint, a 10-year plan, was needed for the emerging generation.

“In 2001, we established a new vision to develop young players in Belgium,” Sablon says. This vision involved among other things giving all the clubs “a brochure which detailed how to best manage player development”.

Sablon believes 95 per cent of the clubs followed these instructions. In addition, at every national age group, those teams in which Mirallas and Dembélé and the rest began to appear, it was decided that all teams would play football the same way — at every level from schools upward — a high-tempo and flexible 4–3–3 system.

Each player would have a clear understanding of his place in that system from the earliest age.

For the success of that policy, Sablon argues, you only have to look at the current national team. “In the past, we had four or five good players who could be competitive against the top nations, now that figure has more than doubled,” he says.

For a nation of just 11 million people to suddenly produce such a depth of talent, the coaching system has to be doing something right, but since great teams are never made only of brochures and systems, there seems to have been some other shaping force to this group of players.

One way of looking at that Belgian style — as Fellaini says, “We are quite technically strong, but also there is a lot of strength and power in the team” — is to see it as a combination of the virtues of Belgium’s footballing neighbours, the traditional Cruyff-led “total football” of the Dutch, and the pace and directness of the African-influenced French.

It is an irony that just as those forces began to combine in footballing terms, the Belgian nation itself was fracturing along the same lines.

In 2007, the stellar youth team that featured Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke and others reached the semi-finals of the European Under-17 Championships for the first time in Belgium’s history.

The following year, as Fellaini explained, a slightly older group including himself and Vincent Kompany broke through at the Olympics. At the same time as its football team was making these advances, however, the Belgian nation seemed intent on tearing itself apart.

Uniquely in Europe, Belgium is almost exactly split by language: half the population, the Flemish, speak a Dutch dialect; the other half, the Walloons, speak French.

The tensions between the two cultures had never been easy, but in 2007, when the Flemish group voted to dissolve parliament, they became apparently insoluble.

For a while, divisions in the national team seemed to reflect that intransigent political stand-off. Much was made of players giving press conferences in competing languages. Vermaelen spoke to reporters in Dutch; Witsel in French.

When I speak to Vermaelen in English, he suggests that any such divisions are in the past. The Arsenal captain argues that, “the divide between French-speaking players and Flemish speakers doesn’t matter... we all get along well”.

He corroborates Fellaini’s tale of bonding in Beijing. The great thing now, Vermaelen suggests, is that with Belgians of different heritage, the Congo-born Benteke complements captain Vincent Kompany’s Congolese parentage and Fellaini’s Moroccan background.

In a way, as with the French team, the new diversity of the Belgian side allows the old partisan rivalries to look vaguely absurd.

Vermaelen, the old man of the squad at 27, believes that the team can help to reunite the country, should it do well. “The great thing is everyone at home is now behind us and that wasn’t always the case.”

He welcomes the expectations that support brings. “The good thing about playing in England is that all the country is used to that. I mean, you don’t get any more media pressure with Belgium than you do playing for Arsenal or Manchester City...”

There is some evidence to support Vermaelen’s claim. In a survey of the two communities conducted every year since 1979, the French-speaking Walloons have always felt Belgian, but the Flemish haven’t.

The biggest change in that sentiment came in 1986, after Belgium reached the World Cup semi-finals, when a further 15 per cent of the Flemish community proclaimed themselves Belgian.

There is some evidence that if this team begins to fulfil its promise it will help unite the country even more, accepting the strength in diversity of the nation.

Steven Martens, the current general secretary of the Belgian FA, suggested recently in an interview that, “We don’t see any signs of little clans appearing because it’s a well-bonded, outspoken group,” in reference to the current team.

“They are symbolic of unity in the country. The players [whose families are] from Congo or Morocco are to the benefit of the team because it means that the dualistic French-Flemish speaking matter is less of an issue.”

Chief among these is Kompany. It is interesting to hear Fellaini, Vermaelen and Mirallas talk about the captain, with a sort of compendious respect as if, mirroring his surname, he is not one man but many.

Kompany speaks five languages, and is studying for a masters degree in business, as well as being able to leap in a manner reminiscent of Michael Jordan.

“He is a patriot, he loves Belgium,” national coach Marc Wilmots, a former Belgian international, recently said of Kompany. “He brings together the Flemish and the Walloons. This is a national political engagement.”

Kompany is the natural leader of a group with many strong characters. The eccentric Fellaini, who parks his reliable old Vauxhall Corsa in among the Porsches and Lamborghinis of fellow players.

The virtuoso Dembélé, who for a while, according to statistics compiled by sports data company Opta, not only had a pass completion rate to rival Paul Scholes, but had “never been tackled”. The unflappable Vermaelen.

If any generation is to be genuinely gilded, however, it needs an alchemical talent, a prodigy. That is where Eden Hazard — “the little Messi” as he was known in France, where he won consecutive national player of the year titles with Lille, aged 19 and 20 — seems likely to step in.

Many of the Belgian players seem to have been born to the game: Lukaku’s father played for the memorable Zaire team of the Eighties, Fellaini’s father was a goalkeeper in Morocco; but Hazard goes one better.

Both his father and mother were professional players in Belgium, and he got his first few games in while in the womb — his mother carried on playing until three months pregnant.

That literally embryonic talent developed quickly; at the age of four, Hazard was playing in teams with boys twice his age. He was always an outlier, and like all outliers — to the writer Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about prodigal success — he got his 10,000 hours of skills mastery in very early.

In the days after talking to Fellaini and Vermaelen, I met Hazard at Chelsea’s stockbroker-belt training ground in Surrey. While waiting to see him, Didier Drogba (visiting for some fitness work) and Branislav Ivanovi’c came by, hulking warriors of players.

Hazard, when he did appear, could have been mistaken for a diminutive kid brother, with his bum-fluff goatee and eager eyes. He remains the talisman of this Belgian team, though, the one who could yet become a legend.

He was singled out as such a player by Zinedine Zidane, no less, who recommended him to Real Madrid in the strongest terms.

Despite interest from many clubs he opted to come to Chelsea, on a £170,000 per week basic wage, originally as part of what looked like then-manager André Villas-Boas’s master plan, adopted by Roberto Di Matteo, to buy as many Belgians as possible.

The others — Lukaku, the 6ft 6in goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, the mercurial midfielder Kevin De Bruyne — have come and gone out on loan for experience (to West Brom, Atlético Madrid and Werder Bremen, respectively). Hazard, though was already well up to speed.

He is a centred kind of presence, comfortable in his own skin, the eldest of four brothers who could all have professional careers.

His own theory about why this generation has the potential for gold lies in the fact that so many of the players have got a lot of experience in major leagues at a very young age, and now find themselves playing each other, week in week out, in the Premier League.

“When we do get together, it is important we have all been immersed in the same football culture,” Hazard says. “In England, it is one country and pretty much one style of football, very intense, generally high-tempo, so we do share that. There are others who come in from [Spain’s] La Liga or elsewhere, really good players who bring different things, but the players in England do share something I think.”

He smiles smoothly when I begin to suggest that all great teams have had a great number 10, a Zidane or a Platini or a Scifo, and if anyone is going to have to fill that role, it is him.

He has known, he suggests, nothing but that pressure since he can remember. I hesitate to mention another gifted prodigy, Joe Cole, who threatened to live up to that youthful pressure for a while, but whose career began to unravel under the procession of managers at Chelsea.

Hazard appears unfazed by such an idea. In fact it is hard to imagine an idea that would faze him. He talks with the understated certainty of his place in the unfolding Belgian master plan of unlikely football dominance.

He sees a few of the other players socially, notably Benteke, he says, with whom he half-thought in passing of opening a Belgian restaurant in London, the thing he misses most from home. 

I wonder if a good moment to do that might be 2014, to celebrate some World Cup success?

“That would be the dream,” he says. “We have a chance along with others. But first we need to get there...”

Who would bet against them?