In November 2015, Belgium became only the eight nation to claim top spot in the FIFA rankings, confirming their transformation from rank outsiders to genuine contenders for international honours. Marc Wilmots’ men will head to France this summer with genuine aspirations of winning Euro 2016 to achieve their crowning glory; but how did the Red Devils climb from 71st to 2nd within the space of a decade?
It was June 2007 when then-manager Rene Vandereycken saw his side slide to their lowest point, but Belgium had been on the decline for several years. After a productive decade in the 1980s, which included appearances in a World Cup semi-final and a European Championship final, it was David Platt’s last-gasp quarter-final winner at Italia ‘90 that would initiate an extended period of regression.
Following that exit to England, the Red Devils would make just two knockout appearances in the next 11 major tournaments, with that 2007 low point sitting in the middle of five consecutive qualifying failures. However, things suddenly changed in the World Cup 2014 campaign; not only did Belgium end their 12-year starvation, but they also headed to Brazil considered as a genuine dark horse. While their campaign would end in a quarter-final loss to eventual runners-up Argentina, Wilmots’ squad was well on its way to establishing its place at the top table of international football.
Those progressions on the pitch continued throughout the Euro 2016 campaign as they battled their way to top spot in a difficult qualifying group. Confirmation of qualification was shortly followed by the FIFA ranking recognition; it might be a meaningless title in itself, which is something even the Royal Belgian Football Association openly concedes, but it is one that underlines Belgium’s current standing in world football.
To the untrained eye, Belgium’s rise to the forefront may appear to be little more than a stroke of good fortune. After all, every nation is blessed with a golden generation and the current crop of Red Devils’ stars certainly falls into that category. The individual talents of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and co are all a gift from the footballing gods. But the fact that a country with a population of just 11.25 million has produced a conveyor belt of such quality is no fluke; anything that the team accomplishes this summer will be the fruits of a decade-long project. If they do achieve the unthinkable by lifting the Euro 2016 trophy at the Stade de France on July 10th, then a lot of thanks will be due to Michel Sablon.
Despite retiring from the post of technical director back in 2012, there is no question that Sablon’s influence on the Belgian national setup has been instrumental. Having been appointed for the role back in 2001, the astute coach quickly pinpointed that change was needed to the entire infrastructure. His first major success was to help ensure that a large percentage of the €10 million Euro 2000 co-hosting profits be invested in eight new football centres. However, it would be his vision for a new philosophy that would truly catapult the nation’s future talent to stardom.
In September 2006, Sablon set out to completely overhaul the Belgian grassroots structure. With those new centres now in place, the technical director insisted that all national youth teams implement a 4-3-3 system. This decision stemmed from time spent at some of European club football’s most iconic and successful youth production lines, namely Barcelona and Ajax, and would champion the concept of developing technical talent rather than focusing on the need to win. This change of tactic would be emphasised by an announcement to scrap league tables for teams playing at the U8s level while small sided games would also be utilised to nurture developing stars.
Convincing clubs to jump on board wasn’t easy, but the support of Werner Helsen’s comprehensive study into the Belgian youth game would highlight the importance of concentrating on producing players rather than building teams to win. As the focus shifted towards skill, the results would soon start to improve too. After just three years of implementing the new system, Belgium had improved massively at schoolboy level. While the senior side was still falling someway short as the first decade of the 21st century came to its close, executives behind the scenes could be optimistic of a brighter future, although even they wouldn’t have predicted the heights currently being hit.
The influence of Sablon’s work cannot be underestimated and is evidenced perfectly by the current setup. Of the 23 players selected for the nation’s first tournament in 12 years, Daniel Van Buyten was the only one to have surpassed his 30th birthday, with 16 being born between 1985 and 1989. Those results aren’t coincidental and show just how crucial the approach to youth football has been. Players have been drilled in the same way, allowing them to break through as a collective. The face that Wilmots has embraced the 4-3-3 ideology at senior level has only enabled even greater levels of cohesion throughout. Much like Barcelona’s La Maisa, rising stars are being prepared for promotion to the main stage, and it makes the transitional process far easier on those younger talents. The vision initially set out a decade ago is now well and truly in full motion.
There is no question that increased training time for youngsters at the eight national centres has helped massively while the structured philosophy helps sculpt starlets from a very early age too. Nevertheless, there’s only so much that can be achieved on the domestic stage. The Belgian Pro League will never be a European powerhouse and playing at this level is restrictive to senior stars. Increased levels of exportation to the continent’s big leagues has been instrumental into turning those well-drilled youngsters into genuine world talents.
Belgium’s starting XI for the final qualifier of an ill-fated World Cup 2006 campaign included just three stars playing on the continent; Emile Mpenza was struggling for a game at Manchester City while Carl Hoefkins was playing Championship football at Stoke. Timmy Simons was the only man truly making a name for himself away from the Pro League thanks to his success at PSV. Although the Eredivisie is a stronger division, it’s still far from being the most competitive environment in Europe.
Compare that team mould to the DNA of the 2016 team and things couldn’t be any more different. Wilmots squad is now dominated by household names that have eked out successful careers in England, Germany, Spain and Italy. These are players used to competing at the very highest level, both in their domestic divisions and the Champions League. Combined with the important lessons garnered from a modern Belgian upbringing, it should come as no surprise that they are performing to such levels. Furthermore, the experience of a World Cup in Brazil can have only helped with the mental preparations ahead of this summer’s tournament too. With climate issues taken out of the equation, their evolution could result in the ultimate glory in France.
One of the telling aspects of Belgium’s style is their comfort on the ball. This is one of the many products born from those early lessons, but those attributes could have a killer impact this summer. At the highest level, football matches can be won or lost on a single moment. The fact Wilmots can rely on his attacking stars to thrive in 1-on-1 situations, whether that be against an opposing goalkeeper or simply taking on a defender, means that they should create chances. Like any great international side, the Red Devils boast a world-class striker ready to convert those opportunities. Lukaku might not be the only vital player in their squad, but he could be the final piece to their puzzle.
The Everton striker is an almost one-of-a-kind. Those physical attributes are a natural gift, but the technical development instilled at an early age with both Belgium and Anderlecht have created a ludicrously talented striker that will cause a nuisance to any defender. The great thing with Wilmots and the Red Devils’ staff is that they’ve worked with Lukaku, and the rest of this squad, in a manner that gives them a comprehensive understanding of their talents. Due to limited camp times, this inability to utilise star players efficiently can often be the Achilles heel preventing good international sides from realising their maximum capabilities. The fact Sablon, Wilmots and other key members have dedicated themselves to replicating a club atmosphere within the setup has ultimately been one of their greatest triumphs.
As far as the players, coaching staff and supporters are concerned, being ranked number one means very little without the silverware to back it up. The Red Devils have achieved nothing thus far and the real test awaits this summer. Nevertheless, their place at the summit of FIFA rankings is a telling reflection of their current ability, and those perceived overachievements are just rewards for spotting deficiencies and acting in the most effective manner. A country with a modest league and relatively small population will always be hampered with a restricted talent pool when it comes to quantity; Belgium’s emphasis on the quality has been the perfect answer.
Regardless of how relevant of irrelevant the FIFA rankings might be, Belgium’s current generation are the newest heavyweight of international football. Don’t be surprised if they leave France this summer as the newly crowned champions too.