By Andrew Thompson, @AFCBvB1410
Football is often called a simple yet not so simple game – simple in concept yet incredibly difficult in its application. The level of technical ability required to reach the professional level as a footballer, even as a goalkeeper borders on mind-boggling. For years there have been few who have excelled more than the Dutch in producing players of who can call upon a technical ability that puts everyone else to shame – only Brazil (and in more recent times the Germans) can stake a claim as the world’s premier purveyors of technique.
With Ajax Amsterdam leading the way, with a brilliant emphasis on youth production and the cornerstone that is TIPS (Technique, Insight, Personality, Speed), the Dutch have long been a perennial powerhouse at the World Cup and the Euro’s – but they’ve always come up short…and perhaps now more than ever those reasons have become clear: mental fragility and a reliance on the individual.
For all their talent and persona, the Oranje have failed to win a single World Cup and have only taken home the European Championship on one occasion (1988), even when fielding some of the greatest individual players in the game’s history as well as some sides that were glistening with talent. Despite the big three (Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord Rotterdam) constantly turning out youth players of exceptional individual ability, players like Memphis Depay, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have long been accused of being more focused on their personal accolades rather than fitting into a system. You will never be able to win a major tournament with eleven individuals no matter how gifted those individuals may be. The Brazilians in ’58, ’62 and ’70 and the Germans in ’74, ’90 and ‘14 fielded teams chalk full of footballing legends, but they still played as a unit (together and for one another), and that is something that the Dutch still refuse to do.
Where does Belgium fit into all of this? It may be early doors when it comes to proving the hype, but the golden generation they are currently blessed with has the final ingredients that their neighbors to the east have been without. The argument on the surface in support of those famous chocolatiers is that the vast majority of their players can be found in Europe’s top leagues, mainly the Premier League. While playing against the best competition possible week in and week out has an enormous positive effect on player development, the success the Red Devils are currently enjoying is rooted in youth football.
Belgium have a footballing history they can certainly be proud of, with its most successful run taking place during the ‘80s where they finished runner-up in Euro 1980 as well as placing fourth during the 1986 World Cu. But despite bordering France, Germany and the Netherlands, Belgium had never reached the heights of its neighbors or produced talented footballers with any great regularity. Current manager Marc Wilmots as well as Franky Van Der Elts, Jan Ceulemans, Jean-Marie Pfaff and Michel Preud’homme surely stand out as legendary figures, but the list is certainly not as long or distinguished, perhaps, until now.
It was in the early 2000’s that then Belgian Football Federation Technical Director Sablon came up with the blueprint for success: a unified vision in regards to youth development in the country. Much the same way the Germans revamped their entire structure in recent years (to which we are now seeing them reap the benefits), Belgium put their entire footballing infrastructure under the microscope. Not only would club football be changed to benefit the national collective, but also the cornerstones of youth training would not focus just on technical and tactical development (with 4-3-3 becoming the standard tactical shape being employed nation wide as an example). It would also focus on mental development, the trait that has allowed the Belgians to surge past the Dutch.
Beginning at ages seven and eight, Belgian youth players were being trained on the pitch in ways that focus on mental strength and development as well as their ability to pass and control a football. Drills were now being implemented that aided in their ability to become so immersed in being able to read the game both on and off the ball that it became second nature to them as they aged and matured. To supplement this, the emphasis on player development was not on the individual player, but the team as a whole. The better players were encouraged to help those under them, and players would train in close-knit groups to truly gain an understanding of one another both on and off the pitch. Most importantly, an emphasis on education still remained. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and the current crop of Belgian footballers taking the world by storm are far more intelligent on and off the ball as well as being very technically adept.
At the 2014 World Cup, 17 out of the 23-man squad were aged 27 or younger, and the vast majority of them had come through the ranks at club level during the youth revolution that swept Belgian football to the core. This is a team that has been assembled with the goal of remaining together for the long haul, and with youth football thriving at home, there is a very real chance they’ll remain a force on the continent.
If results have not been evidence enough, then all you need do is look at the current list of Belgians who are excelling amongst the European elite: Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibault Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Kevin de Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan, Toby Alderweireld, Dries Mertens and Marouane Fellaini to name a few. When it comes to the next string of players, the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Divock Origi, Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, Zakaria Bakkali, Leander Dendoncker, Mitchy Batshuayi, Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Jason Denayer are all 22 or younger and all are playing their trade in England, France, Spain, Germany or at Anderlecht.
Despite having an abundance of talent, there has never been much debate about whom these players represent when they take the pitch. Unlike the Dutch, who constantly go through infighting amongst members of the national team or non-player personnel (at both club level and the national level), there is no questioning player unity and a desire to succeed not just for themselves, but also for their country.
The Dutch will still argue that their noisy little neighbors have yet to reach their level, at the end of the day its results that truly matter most. Perhaps to that end, its rather fitting that this Summers’ edition of the Euro will feature Belgium and not the Netherlands. Fifth favorites in Brazil two summers ago and now ranked first in the FIFA rankings for the first time in their nations history, Belgian unity and mental strength could very well make the difference this summer and many summers ahead.
(For further reading on the Belgians rise to the top: http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2014/jun/06/belgium-blueprint-gave-birth-golden-generation-world-cup- )
Andrew “Drew” Thompson is our resident Bundesliga Hipster. His blogs can also be found at A Bergkamp Wonderland, OOTB and Full90Gooner. Drew is always up for a debate, so message him on Twitter at @AFCBvB1410