Often bemoaned for its tedium, international week guarantees slow news days. It’s a godsend for clubs as it alleviates the minute day-to-day media scrutiny that invariably bears fruit with a story materialising as a talking point for the rest of the week. Geoffrey Boycott’s comments on Michael Yardy’s depression invited the rest of the sporting fraternity to mull over the illness, as well as overzealously bemoaning relics like Boycott for being isolated from contemporary understandings. But the reliable guarantee is that as spring begins to flourish, transfer speculation emanates as regularly as the leaves beginning to grow on the trees.
Internationals are maligned but they have a useful purpose. Being an unknown quantity, Javier Hernández was belittled by a portion of Manchester United supporters until he scored twice at the 2010 World Cup. Luís Suarez auditioned enticingly at the same event for prospective buyers while Asamoah Gyan was the object of sentimental Sunderland fans’ objections before he arrived at the Stadium of Light. They’re just a few who soar to prominence thanks to representing their country in games which are readily available to watch, since the various kick-off times of internationals ensure that clashes are largely avoided to stimulate the ardent lover of the game’s football fix.
One nation dwarfing all others in generating a transfer buzz is Belgium, a country that should soon no longer be synonymous for an unflattering depiction in the acerbic Martin McDonagh film In Bruges. The country’s footballing produce is admittedly as unmemorable as their chocolate is memorable, however if you’re an international neutral, you’re best advised to pine for them in qualification for Euro 2012, because suddenly talent is dripping out of the pores of a European minnow hitherto undefined by a single footballing demi-god. Hungary has Ferenc Puskás and Flórián Albert, Ukraine has Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov, Bulgaria Hristo Stoichkov and Wales has John Charles and Ryan Giggs. And Gareth Bale. Belgium though is bereft of an icon synonymous with their national side while the country’s most outstanding sportsmen in recent years are women: Grand Slam tennis winners Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.
Now though, prospectively the Red Devils has a skilled Premier League defensive pairing of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen, a talisman in Eden Hazard, a skilful combatant in Everton’s Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku, an old-fashioned striker but with searing pace. A supporting cast consists of the highly-touted Standard Liege midfielder Steven Defour, Ajax’s versatile Jan Vertonghen and Fulham’s quicksilver Maloussa Dembélé. The English influx can virtually be owed to Liege’s scaring Liverpool witless before a narrow 1-0 defeat over two legs in the qualifying stages for the 2008/09 Champions League. Almost immediately after their elimination, Everton made the unusual decision to spend an eight-figure sum on Fellaini while Defour and the presently sought-after Alex Witsel were upgraded to auspicious prospects overnight.
National team goalkeeper Silvio Proto said last December that he believes Belgium has belatedly taken football seriously: “Smaller countries like Belgium are finally investing in the education of professional football players. Before, Belgian clubs bought foreign players. But there is no money now and that is why, especially at Anderlecht, the club is investing in the youth academy. Lukaku is the first player to emerge from that system, but others will follow.”
Naturally with the exception of the English-based players, all of the abovementioned have been mooted for transfers in the summer to one of European football’s attractive triumvirate (England, Spain or Italy). Twenty-three-year- old Vertonghen was this week linked with Manchester United but would be an ideal acquisition for Arsenal to pair him with his international and former-Ajax teammate Thomas Vermaelen in defence, although AC Milan, scouring for central defenders as the clock winds down on Alessandro Nesta’s career, is believed to be interested. Liege publicly disclosed a ‘get well soon’ letter Sir Alex Ferguson sent Defour, 22, after he broke his foot in late-2009, which subsequently led to ‘2 + 2’ journalism with the answer, be it 4 or 5, still unknown. Anderlecht’s Lukaku meanwhile is not 18 until May but has already scored twice for the Red Devils, but his decision to admirably prolong his education is likelier to herald a summer 2012 transfer, possibly after an inflation-inducing Euro 2012 – which will delight Anderlecht.
However Hazard is the jewel in the Flemish crown having set Ligue 1 alight this season with Lille, and the club is on course to yield a first French league title since 1954. His statistics of six goals and five assists may appear measly for an attacking midfielder adept on the wing or in a central role, but Hazard’s exquisite link-up play preceding goals for the prolific West-African partnership of Gervinho and Moussa Sow has been incessant and a mid-season contract extension can be viewed as inflating his fee just as much as prolonging his stay in France.
That he was a substitute for Belgium’s two recent qualifying wins against Austria and Azerbaijan was disappointingly quizzical given his form, with reports suggesting a spat had occurred between him and national coach Georges Leekens. Leekens was compelled to deny this and explained that Hazard’s absence from the starting XI in both matches was owed to the balance he chose, while assistant Marc Wilmots, the national team’s record goalscorer, ominously informed the media that Leekens and he were “trying to find the more competitive team”. He also added: “Maybe he (Hazard) could show more rigour and desire during training sessions. Maybe he should have less fun, even if it is his asset.”
While easy to construe the coaching staff as killjoys, Belgium are perched in a competitive position, occupying second spot in their group behind runaway leaders Germany and only a sole point ahead of Turkey, who has a game-in-hand. Long-term layoffs for Fellaini and Vermaelen have sapped a brutally uncompromising streak from the squad, while Kompany was suspended for Azerbajin, so there is a consciousness to compensate those absentees with artisans such as Timmy Simons. There is a conflict of interests with Hazard though, who although keen to stress that he is unperturbed by transfer gossip, will almost certainly be eager to showcase his ability to a potentially wider audience. Especially when scouts from over half-a-dozen English clubs were in Vienna to analyse the merits of compatriot Alex Witsel – who scored both Belgian goals in a 2-0 win.
Omitting Witsel earlier typifies an embarrassment of budding riches Leekens has at his disposal and that jinxing cliché Golden Generation has already been attached as the moniker de facto for a national side that on paper, is actually worthy of the dark horses tag should they reach Ukraine and Poland. Belgium, starved of inspiration for so long, is no longer famished.