How English football helped nurture the Belgian national football team

When it comes to qualification from their World Cup group, England have taken the old adage of keeping their enemies closest very seriously indeed.

If they are to win Group G, the Three Lions need to get the better of Belgium, and there can be no suggestion of being taken by surprise by Roberto Martinez’s men when the two teams meet in Kaliningrad on June 28.

Over the course of the past decade, the low country’s elite footballers have become very familiar to those with even a passing interest in the Premier League.

Whereas 10 years ago, the average fan might have listed chocolate and waffles as Belgium’s biggest exports into the UK, now its superstar strikers have leaped to the top of the list. English clubs have spent hundreds of millions of pounds on Red Devils players, developing their talent and effectively offering a helping hand in nurturing the country’s so-called ‘Golden Generation’.

The Premier League has witnessed a Belgian boom.

TOPSHOT – Portugal’s midfielder Bruno Fernandes (L) vies with Belgium’s midfielder Marouane Fellaini during the friendly football match between Belgium and Portugal, on June 2, 2018 at the King Baudouin stadium in Brussels. / AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS

Chelsea forward Eden Hazard and his Manchester United counterpart Romelu Lukaku are two of 15 players named by Martinez in his preliminary 28-man squad who ply their trade in the Premier League.

Fifteen.

For context, in the entire 25-year period between 1992 and 2007, the same number of Belgians were on the books of English top-flight clubs.

There can be little doubt that, inadvertently of course, England have provided an incubation chamber for a squad which will be looking to bite the hands which have fed it this summer.

“We’ve matured,” midfielder Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United told the Daily Mail. “Everyone’s playing in England and that’s allowed us to set our sights high.”

Former coach Marc Wilmots also recognised the importance of the Premier League in his side’s development during his tenure.

“All the players who have gone abroad have progressed,” he said. “The national team are reaping the rewards.”

There’s no getting away from the country’s extraordinary rise in the FIFA rankings. Having sat 66th in 2009, they go into the World Cup in third place in the admittedly flawed standings. Not bad for a country whose average position has been 30th in the 25-plus years the ratings system has been in use.

While the Premier League has certainly been a catalyst, with its brightest young players exposed to the world’s best from an early age, the roots to Belgium’s development come from a period of failure in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Elimination from World Cup 98 brought with it an urgency to reevaluate how football was taught, which tactics were adopted and how the youth structure in the county should be reordered.

At the heart of it all was Michel Sablon – a former member of the national coaching staff who went on to become the brains behind a plan to revolutionise Belgian football – and Bob Browaeys, for a long time part of the Red Devils’ age-group system.

By 2006, they had put together a blueprint – ‘La vision de formation de l’URBSFA’ – outlining a method for producing rounded, intelligent, dynamic footballers.

Coaching courses were made free of charge, sessions revamped to ensure children were actively involved, drills fine-tuned to focus on technical attributes as much as physicality, research commissioned into youth football and development programmes integrated with academic education.

Belgian football began producing the players they were looking for, and that soon made overseas giants take notice.

In 2009 a new crop started being picked off by English teams. No longer were journeymen finding their ways to the lower reaches of the Premier League, now top clubs were investing in young men and teenagers, impressed by how they had been molded back home.

In doing so, England was indirectly investing in the Belgian national team.

While there remains frustration back in Belgium that the Jupiler Pro League cannot retain its biggest assets – coaches are regularly found bemoaning the sudden departure of a hot prospect to the darker recesses of Under-18 squads in England or Spain – there appears to be a general acceptance that this is now the norm.

Belgian clubs do not have the financial clout to compete with the Premier League or parts of La Liga when they come calling and, besides, they are hardly the first nation to have their best players operating overseas – France’s World Cup-European Championship double at the turn of the millennium was built on a core element of the squad developing themselves in Serie A, for instance.

So why try to fight it? Belgium are not. The production line continues to chug, talented youngsters continue to find in front of them a clear pathway to prominence and the continent’s richest teams continue to keep an interested eye – all of which was illustrated by the £21.5million move of Youri Tielemans from Anderlecht to Monaco a year ago.

In turn, the Premier League has been the Belgian national team’s growbag, turning a generation of well-educated prodigies into genuine global stars.

Is Russia 2018 the time for the Red Devils to finally reap their rewards?


Sam Morshead Sam Morshead is a British sports journalist. You can follow him on Twitter