It wasn’t that long ago when the only Belgian name mentioned in relation to a transfer deal in the Premier League was Bosman. It’s easy to forget that prior to the Belgian revolution in English, and wider European, football, the only noticeable names to play for Premier League sides were Jonathan Blondel, Luc Nilis and Branko Strupar. Throw in Philippe Albert, perhaps the best of the early Belgian imports, and the contrast between the 90s and noughties in Belgian football is stark.
By noughties, we of course mean recent history, perhaps 2008 onwards. Much has been made of the abundance of talent emerging from the Low Country as they finally secured qualification for a major tournament finals for the first time in over a decade last year.
Many will ponder how this sudden success has come about? Success is, however, a gradual process. Belgian football didn’t wake up one morning and realise it had serious talent coming through the ranks. There was a clear emphasis placed on the innovation and development of coaching techniques across the national game, particularly at academies that had the resources to invest in youth.
After the golden generation – not a term I personally enjoy using, but best sums up the feeling in Belgium for this particular generation of players – of the 1980s and early-90s, Paul van Himst and latterly Georges Leekens set about devising a training programme that would be widely available to clubs across the Kingdom. Van Himst, a playing icon in his day, was manager during the twilight and post-period of the Pfaff-Gerets-Scifo era, thus inheriting a football power on the way out.
His philosophy was simple, and it mirrored his education of the game during 16 fruitful years at Anderlecht. His tally of 233 goals in 457 games tells only half the story; van Himst was a pioneer, encouraging the development of technical football, incisive passing and countering at pace during his career. He played ahead of his time. Former manager Pierre Sinibaldi famously said:
“Paul is as quick as Pele. He thinks as fast too. His only weakness? He’s Belgian.”
Van Himst adopted this forward thinking and creative philosophy during his managerial career. He spoke of quicker transitions during his early years as national team manager and predicted a future game based on the speed of countering. Furthermore, he urged Belgian academies to coach these principles. Gone were the days, for van Himst at least, of controlled built-up attacks. He wanted to see a greater emphasis on speed of play and technical efficiency.
Perhaps the latter of the two points was a natural progression. Belgian football has always been synonymous with technical players. A reversion back to the aforementioned Belgian players brings together one telling attribute; technique. Even Albert, a predominantly defensive player, was astute in either central defence or midfield.
Leekens matured the early van Himst philosophy. Another legend in his playing days, Leekens was a highly regarded coach within national circles having lived a nomadic existence since retiring from playing in 1984. The reality of his first appointment to the national team role can be summed up in one word: underachievement. While Belgium qualified for World Cup 98, they finished a disappointing third in the group stage. However, his work beyond the national team ensured the legacy of his early appointment remains as worthwhile as qualifying for the finals in France.
Leekens placed a great emphasis on coaching the foremost young trainers at home. He would organise seminars and coaching sessions that focused on technical development and increasing the speed of play. How quickly could a team counter? At what pace? These were the questions he asked himself and those who were tasked with coaching the next generation of Belgium’s footballers. He noted that a successful counter should be played at six metres per second.
It was one of his most enduring legacies that’s evident across world football today. Real Madrid and Manchester City are as adept at countering as anyone. Frequently they travel at seven or eight metres per second. It harks back to the coaching methods that Leekens demanded from academy coaches across the nation. This, of course, isn’t to say Leekens pioneered counter attacking football, it had been around for generations, but he brought it to the forefront of Belgian coaching.
A look across the national team today and the evidence of speed of play coaching is clear. Hazard’s prominent strength is travelling with the ball at speed. Benteke enjoys turning and shooting early. Mertens, De Bruyne, Mirallas are much the same. Witsel plays early; he’s no ball dweller. You can continue, Chadli keeps it moving as does Fellaini. Dembele travels at speed.
Although not all the players received their education in Belgium, the rate of their development while playing for schoolboy national teams did much to innovative their style of play. Even the defenders are adept at travelling at speed. Vertonghen and Alderweireld enjoy attacking open spaces – they want to instigate quick attacks.
Aside from the coaching philosophies implemented at youth level, there has also been a conscious effort to invest in facilities. Standard Liege spent €18 million on their academy, more than many of Europe’s elite sides. But this outlay was recovered on just one graduate of the production line – Fellaini – when Everton paid a Belgian record €20 mllion in 2008.
And the new coaching infrastructure was well and truly in the black when talented midfielder Axel Witsel was snapped up by Benfica for almost €9 million. Witsel has since moved to Zenit Saint Petersburg for €38 million – testament to the quality of player coming through the ranks since the investment.
Genk also invested heavily in their academy, spending close to €3 million on improving pitches, indoor training facilities and the scouting network. It may seem a petty figure but it represents a huge outlay for a club of Genk’s size. This figure was recouped almost instantly following the sale of Thibaut Courtois to Chelsea. Since that investment, the club has also signed a development agreement with Liverpool.
Their coach exchange shares ideas and philosophies while players from both clubs are given the chance to train alongside their foreign counterparts. Long term, Genk will develop players for their own benefit as well as the national team. Courtois is now firmly the number one keeper for the national team; no mean feat considering Simon Mignolet’s talent.
Anderlecht and Club Brugge have also invested heavily and are reaping the rewards of a modern coaching philosophy at youth level with the emergence of Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans and formerly Romelu Lukaku. His €15 million move to Chelsea represented the first major sale of the new academy era at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Tielemans, perhaps the nation’s finest talent from the ’97 age group, is destined for a big-money move elsewhere over the next couple of years.
Many will argue that the sale of the country’s best young players hinders the growth of the national game. While in some regards this is true, reality will always outgun potential. The footballing and financial lure of the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga will attract players from most nations.
Belgium is still not at the stage where they can produce players for their own league. Not even Brazil is there yet. The emphasis should be placed on players being developed effectively for the national team then sold for a large profit.
Consequently clubs can invest in youth facilities and more expensive imports for the first team. It’s a gradual process but if five or six clubs in Belgium can produce a consistent batch of talented youngsters, not only will the national team benefit from a greater talent pool, they will recoup any investment they make in the academy. Only then can a league grow and attract top players as monetary power is prevalent.
Longer term the league can grow and retain its best youngsters, but only after a sustained period of selling and generating funds that help attract players from abroad. Brazil, alongside its national economic growth, is beginning to experience this today. The league is able to retain some of its better players. The lure of moving abroad, once facilitated by the desire to earn more, is now as much about experiencing a different lifestyle as earning the big bucks.
Major League Soccer would do well to follow the Belgian model. Produce players for the national team, sell, reinvest and recoup once again.
The potential for growth and continued evolution across the Belgian game is colossal. Academies that followed the early van Himst and Leekens model and invested in youth development are now reaping the rewards with the graduation of numerous players to the first team.
The next stage of development will require further investment as Belgian academies begin looking to attract youngsters from abroad early in their career. Scouting and bases in lands outside the Kingdom will come at some cost, but much like the infrastructure outlay, the potential to regenerate and recover this cost is evident.
The national team is blessed with an abundance talent. The way things are going, perhaps the Jupiler Pro League will be next.
About the author – Omar Saleen
Based in London, Omar is the editor-in-chief at These Football Times. A professional coach by day having worked at clubs including Fulham, QPR and Red Bull New York, he also writes freelance for a number of outlets.