UK & World News

  • 11 January 2014, 5:36

Belgium Shoots For World Cup 2014 Success

With just 11 million residents, Belgium is one of western Europe's smallest nations, but it's hoping to kick above its weight at international football's biggest tournament.

The Red Devils, who make up the country's national team, are now ranked 11th in the world, having powered up FIFA's rankings from 68th just four years ago, in one of the game's most extraordinary revivals.

A glimpse at the talent in the Belgian squad gives you a clue as to how they've achieved it, with eleven of the squad playing in the English Premier League, the most competitive and lucrative in the world.

Vertonghen, Mignolet, Vermaelen, Fellaini, Dembele, Hazard, Chadlhi, De Bruyne, Benteke, Lukaku and Mirallas all play for English clubs, gaining valuable experience in the league and often in UEFA's European championship.

Those gained skills, the argument runs, are imported back into the national squad.

A decade ago Belgium adopted the German model of coaxing and shaping young talent: improving coaching in technique, feeding young players through a honed academy system and ensuring early first team exposure to gain experience.

The exceptional players who benefited from the new regime are now in their teens and early twenties, but the success of the national programme has, conversely, stripped the Belgian league of its finest exponents.

Sky News spoke to fans outside an Anderlecht match, which is Belgian's biggest club but has just a fraction of the wealth of English Premier League stalwarts like Manchester United.

"They always want more money and better clubs, so the players go abroad, they never come back to Belgium to play," said one man with a Belgian shrug.

A lifelong Anderlecht supporter told us: "I've been coming here for 25 years and I've seen a lot of players go."

The success of the Belgian players may have been at the expense of the national league, but the Red Devils are experiencing a bump in support at home they would not have dared dream about five years ago.

Maarten Breckx, the sport anchor at Brussels-based VTM News told me: "It's cooler to support a good team than a bad team.

"There was this period when Belgium was playing teams like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and they had one or two fans who would travel with them.

"A few months ago when Belgium played Scotland, several thousand supporters were there. They don't mind being associated with winners, but steer clear of a bunch of losers."

However, Maarten said captain Vincent Kompany has cautioned against inflating expectations ahead of the World Cup in Brazil.

"It's a very young group of players right now and if we reach the second round that will already be a big success. He's reaching for the European Cup in 2016. That's more like the goal of this generation of Belgian players," Maarten said.

We visited an Under-9s match in Watermael-Boitsford, a Brussels suburb where coaches are already looking for new talent, but concentrate more on fostering team spirit over individual glory.

Coach Alain Caron said that much of the credit for today's team must be given to the manager Marc Wilmots who speaks all the national languages of Belgium: French, Dutch and German, thereby leapfrogging the linguistic divide which still tears at Belgium's unity.

England's FA says it has been watching the experiment in Belgium and taking note of the good practice on display there.

The director of elite development Dan Ashworth told Sky News he is pursuing a number of strategies to ensure England produces its own crop of technically gifted players, while noting the wealth of the Premier league makes it harder for homegrown players to gain first team experience.

"I think you see some cycles. At some stage France were all the rage, then it was Spain and Holland and Germany, now Belgium," he said.

"I think every so often there's a country which has a good crop of young players which everyone gets excited about and I'm just hoping that in a few years' time people will be coming here to watch us and our young technical players."

Manager of the Under-21 squad, Gareth Southgate hopes the FA's Elite Player Performance Plan which is attempting to fix transfer fees between academies and improve coaching will help England replicate Belgium' success.

"In the Premier League we are now attracting the best players from around the world and the standard needed to get in is much higher. That's a challenge for both English players - and English coaches," he said.

There are nay-sayers, who it is just luck that so many good Belgian players came through at the same time. If a second generation emerges and builds on the current team's successes, then those critics may be silenced.

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