As an eight year old in 1982 I sat and watched Belgium upset Argentina in the opening game of the World Cup in Spain by one goal to nil. The goal was scored by Erwin Vandenbergh and that Argentine side contained the best player in the world at the time, Diego Maradona. I was so disappointed as my childhood football hero was Maradona. Belgium was able to get past the first round but succumbed in the second round. Therefore, my first impression of Belgian football was that of a talented side but not yet the finished article. Four years later, they achieved their best ever run finishing fourth and defeating some very good sides along the way including Russia who had world class players such as goalkeeper Dasaev, striker Belanov and midfielder Sergei Aleinikov. I enjoyed the performances of the gangling captain Ceulemans, acrobatic goalkeeper Pfaff and the young attacking midfielder Enzo Scifo, especially against a talented Spanish side where Belgium won on penalties. The Belgian national team qualified for World Cups from 1982 to 2002 and after a lull in 2006 and 2010, they have a supremely talented bunch of players to help them return to the World Cup stage in Brazil in 2014. The sides mentioned previously contained players that could be considered pioneers of Belgian football and it would be remiss of me not to mention Philippe Albert who was the first Belgian player to play in the English Premier league. Albert played for Newcastle United and the defender became a cult hero on Tyneside.
TWO MOST INFLUENTIAL PLAYERS
Let us fast forward to 2013 and football today is littered with Belgian talent with the main league beneficiary being the English Premier League. Vincent Kompany has been the biggest Belgian influence in the EPL thus far. During his four years in England, he has helped Manchester City lift the FA cup and Premier League title. The uncompromising defender is one of the world’s best in his position and his leadership qualities are also evident as both club and country have granted him captaincy. The recent Belgian invasion into the Premier League started with midfielder Marouane Fellaini in 2008 and he impressed initially as a rugged defensive midfielder, but has recently been used higher up the pitch behind a central striker with the departure of Aussie Tim Cahill from Everton’s ranks. Fellaini is now a much sought after player by Europe’s top clubs and is a player you just cannot miss with that outstanding Afro hairstyle.
Young talent coming through
Many of Belgium’s top stars and promising youngsters play in the English Premier League and they include Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspurs), Christian Benteke (Aston Villa), Romelu Lukaku(Chelsea) and Moussa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspurs). My focus is on the endless young talent coming through and Eden Hazard is the finest talent I have ever seen from Belgium. The twenty two year old made his debut for the national side at 17 years of age and joined Chelsea in 2012 at a Belgian record transfer of 32 million pounds. He has had an up and down first season in England but his skill, speed, vision and supreme technical ability sets him apart from many other players. Hazard was the most sought after player in Europe before Chelsea snapped him up and I see him becoming a great player for club and country. Christian Benteke is also twenty two years old and has scored 18 goals thus far in his debut season for Aston Villa. His physical presence, impressive hold up play and finishing ability have been outstanding and he seems perfectly suited for the demands of the EPL. Surely bigger clubs will come calling and Villa will do well to keep him after the 2012/13 season ends in May. Mention must also be made of those Belgians shining outside of the EPL such as Axel Witsel and Nicolas Lombaerts of Zenit St.Petersburg , Steven De Four of Porto and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois who is a Chelsea loanee to Atletico Madrid.
Reason for this upsurge in top Belgian talent?
We cannot claim that the glut of football riches possessed by Belgium at this time is due to careful planning from the Belgian football federation as most young Belgians leave in their early teens to ply their trade in Holland or France. Some teams in Belgium have however increased their commitment to youth development. Standard Liege and Racing Genk have invested millions of dollars in their academies thereby producing some gems. However, the existence of this fine array of Belgian players nowadays can be largely attributed to a generational coincidence. This sometimes happens in football and Belgium national coach Marc Wilmots will do well to take advantage of this abundance of talent.
Belgium is poised for great things and many believe that not only will they qualify for the World Cup in 2014, but they will also excel in Brazil and progress deep into the tournament. Should they get there they would definitely be one of my ‘dark horses’ for the title.