Despite the recent disappointments of not reaching the past two World Cups and last two European Championship, there is an emerging group of talent coming through in Belgium. Things are looking up for the nation, ranked at number 37 in the FIFA rankings, though, they are well placed in their European Championship qualification group, perched behind Germany, and one point ahead of Turkey with a better goal difference but have played one extra game.
As well as this, they have three more games to play in the group – they face the groups whipping boys’ Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, and a final group game against Germany, however, this may be the optimum time to play Germany as they may be more relaxed having known they have finished top of the group and may come under pressure from some clubs’ not to play their star players’ in such useless games.
This, should they qualify, would give the nation their first taste of a major competition since the 2002 World Cup.
A wanted man: Lukaku makes big money move
This is mainly down to a new wave of talent crashing onto the shore, 17 of the 22 in the current first team squad are 25 or under, and many of the youngest, including the highly rated teenager Romelu Lukaku, and Lille OSC forward Eden Hazard, 20, are being monitored by some of the best teams on the planet. With Lukaku completing a £20million move to Chelsea this Summer and having being tipped as the next Drogba, it made sense for Chelsea to make a move, as Drogba is nearing 34 and has been nowhere near his top form the last two seasons.
There are only about 15 clubs around the world who can afford to pay for him. But if a club comes here with €20 million, they will return from this trip empty-handed. We want more for Lukaku, much more.
Anderlecht’s General Manager, back in November last year.
The comparison is easy to see, at only 18, Lukalu is well built, at 94 kg, and stands 6ft 3in tall, very physically similar to Drogba; powerful, strong and fast. The most amazing thing about Lukalu is, that, when he was only 16, he finished top scorer in Belgium’s Jupiler league, with 15 goals in 33 games, almost one every two games.
Prize winner: Hazard scooped the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award, at only 20, what does his future hold?
Along with Lukaku, there are a number of other great talents on show within the Belgian squad. Eden Hazard, at 20 was just, last season named Ligue 1 player of the year, becoming the youngest player to win it, beating ex-team-mate Gervinho, now of Arsenal, Lisandro Lopez, Michel Bastos, Yohann Gourcuff and Miralem Pjanic, all of Lyon. As well as the player of the year, he was also named in the League’s Team of the Season. Recently, he has been linked with Internazionale and Barcelona, along with Arsenal, but he has just signed an extension to his current deal, keeping him at Lille till 2014.
Such is his reputation, he has been labelled the “little Messi” by some, due to the resemblance regarding his ability to dribble and change speed quickly. However along with the accolades and praise always comes the criticism, as with many young players like Balotelli, Hazard’s work rate and attitude has been questioned by some of his present and former national coaches. However, at the tender age of 20, Hazard does have a lot to learn and perhaps dubbing him the new Messi may be detrimental to his progression as it will draw more criticism if he does not produce performances of incredible standards.
One other thing which these new talents need to also be aware of is the possibility of taking too big a leap, too soon in respect to their clubs and transfers. Moving to a larger club may mean less game time and less chance of making the national team, harming the chances of progression with Belgium.
Another Belgian, plying his trade in his home country, but still persistently linked with clubs like Everton and Manchester United, is Steven Defour. At 22, Defour is not as young as the others in this feature, but he has been captain of his team, Standard Liege, since he was 19, showing his leadership skills. He moved to Standard Liege in 2006 from his first club, Genk, and in his first season, won “man of the season”. The season after, he scooped the Golden Shoe for most valuable player in the league, and during both of these seasons, he won the club’s player of the year. Over the past season, Defour has become more defensively based, patrolling the area between defence and midfield, as opposed to his old role of attacking midfield. Many claim he is ready for the Premier League, rumours of clubs interested have dried up recently after an injury he sustained but you never know in football.
Another talent who could blossom in the future is Kevin De Bruyne, a 20 year old midfielder. Although only making one appearance for Belgium so far, he is someone who could play a part should they reach Euro 2012. I don’t really know much about De Bruyne, but, whilst researching this article looking through forums on the internet, I have seen comments such as “Kind of mixing the styles of Zidane and Rivaldo.” This is quite a statement to be made about someone so young, Zidane is quite possibly the best midfielder to grace football, and Rivaldo isn’t far behind. This suggests he is a player with some flair but has the composure of Zidane. De Bruyne plays for Genk in Belgium, making 65 appearances since his first team debut, and scoring seven times.
Chelsea see me as the successor to Petr Cech.
New Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, 19.
And finally, Thibaut Courtois, just this month signed by Chelsea in a move which some of Genk, his now former club, officials said was, “by far the largest bid we had ever received for any of our players.” – rumoured to be around £8million. Courtois is seen to be an ideal replacement for current Chelsea number one, Petr Cech. The 19 year old has a massive future ahead of him now that he is at such a huge club, and there is the possibility that within the next few years, he could become future Belgium number one goalkeeper too as he played 40 games this season in Belgium’s top flight, as well as winning Goalkeeper of the Year in Belgium and Genk’s Player of the Year. Courtois has also got a title medal to his name from last season’s title win by his team.
Belgian stars in the Premier League
The Rock of the Meanest Defence in the Premier League: Kompany has been in incredible form this last season.
Although I have covered a great array of talent in the article so far, I can’t see past Vincent Kompany being the Carlos Puyol of Belgium, and one of the finest players in Britain right now. He is already third in line to the captaincy of the Belgian national team and favourite to succeed Carlos Tevez in regards to the Manchester City captaincy, with Roberto Mancini fed up at the attitude of the want away star striker. The former Belgian Young Professional Player of the Year has done incredibly well to cement his spot in the City team having been in the first ‘batch’ of Manchester City purchases, many of whom, including Emmanuel Adebayor and Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy are rarely on the bench and not wanted at the Etihad Stadium anymore.
Last season, he also won Manchester City Supporters’ Player of the Year, and Manchester City Players’ Player of the Year, beating Tevez and Yaya Toure in both, he was also named in the PFA’s Team of the Season and won Belgium’s Player of the Year for playing abroad, beating Eden Hazard. Kompany’s transfer fee of around £6million from Hamburg in 2008 looks an absolute bargain in today’s market and, it is! Kompany started out his career at Anderlecht and moved to Germany before leaving to come to the Premier League. As long as he stays injury free, Kompany will be one of the stars of the forthcoming season.
Thomas Vermaelen is also a high profile Belgian playing in the English Top Flight for Arsenal, he signed for around £10 million from Ajax but has been dogged by injuries this season although he is expected to make a strong return this season and become first choice centre back to partner Laurent Koscielny.
Another Premier League player who made the move from Belgium is afro-man Marouane Fellani, famed for his hair, his ability made one of the financially tightest teams in the league splash out £15 million, a now previous record transfer fee for a Belgian and a Club record for Everton. The Everton midfielder has been a revelation, scoring 11 times in 73 appearances. With his performances in his first season, the 2008-09 season, where he scored nine goals in 35 games, he won the Young Player of the Year.
Whether this is the start of a promising decade for Belgian football or not is unclear, are we over-reacting to talent which might not fully emerge? or are we focusing on players’ who could grow to be some of the best on the planet eventually? Either way, it is encouraging to hear that the clubs are making a huge effort. Standard Liege and Anderlecht have both spent over £10 million on youth development facilities, trying to create a balance of education and football to try and find Europe’s next big star.
I think Belgium’s clubs have not had enough credit for the quality of players they have produced over the past few years. All of these players started out their professional careers in their country. Perhaps they are overlooked by the player developments in Spain and with some clubs, like Arsenal, in England, but we should appreciate how good the players’ produced in Belgium are because some of them are central to the success of teams us fans’ support.