Euro 2004, Ajax, Beijing and Mark Hughes: How Belgium have progressed from absence to anticipation

The 2018 World Cup squad have been described as the ‘golden generation’.

Euro 2004, Ajax, Beijing and Mark Hughes: How Belgium have progressed from absence to anticipation
Kompany's transfer to Man City sparked an influx of Belgian talent coming to the Premier League (photo: Getty Images)

There is no doubting that Belgium boast one of the most talented squads at the World Cup. Blessed with a wealth of Premier League quality, Roberto Martinez’ side are tipped as one of the favourites to lift the famous trophy in Moscow on July 15th.

Yet it has been far from an easy path for the Red Devils to progress to this stage and there has been some unlikely influences behind their development...

The restructure of youth football

After peaking at Mexico 1986, where they finished fourth, Belgian international football has been on somewhat of a downward spiral. A creaking squad showing divides between the senior players and youth products created divisions in the ranks that prevented Belgium from qualifying for Euro 2004 after defeats to Bulgaria and Croatia ensured they missed out by the most slender margins.

This lacklustre campaign set the tone for a dismal decade on the global stage. Belgium failed to qualify for five major international tournaments between 2004 and 2012 and it was the early derelictions that forced the Belgian Football Federation into change.

Jean-François de Sart, who was the Under-21 national team head coach between 1999 and 2011, could be considered as the focal point behind the revolution. The former Liege and Anderlecht star, father of Middlesbrough midfielder Julien de Sart, worked alongside the national chiefs to develop seven regional training centres to spot and train young prodigies.

Looking back on his success, de Sart told the media in 2013, “since then, the Belgian league has gradually become a reservoir of talents for leagues all over Europe. We’ve never produced so much football talent at once.”

Such a move ensured that fewer players ‘fell through the net’ and the training was more structured and beneficial to young players in the country. However, the Belgium national team must also thank some of their neighbours for the current ‘golden generation’.

From Amsterdam to Beijing

Ajax is well known for developing masses of young talent in an almost unrivalled academy system. Based upon their TIPS model of technique, insight, personality and speed, three very familiar defenders have progressed through the ranks - Toby Alderweireld, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen. On the other side of Belgium, Eden Hazard and Kevin Mirallas, a major star at youth team level, benefitted from an exemplary youth setup in Lille.

As the senior team continued to struggle on the global stage, the first sign of a youth revolution transmitted in 2008. Belgium had qualified for the Beijing Olympics and fielded the likes of current World Cup players Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele, all aged between 20 and 22 when the tournament started. After defeating Italy along the way, Belgium eventually finished fourth, losing to a Ronaldinho-inspired Brazil in the Third Place Play-Off.

One man who impressed, for both the right and the wrong reasons, was defender Kompany. After progressing through the Anderlecht academy, Kompany was raising eyebrows at Hamburg in Germany. After being scheduled to play in two matches at the Olympics, Kompany missed the second through suspension. Hamburg demanded for Kompany to fly back early but the defender refused, sparking the threat of legal action. The argument opened the door for a potential move abroad and an unlikely source came knocking…

Kompany's move

Mark Hughes was the manager of Manchester City at the time and made some interesting signings during summer 2008. Brazilian striker Jo had impressed in Beijing, whilst Tal Ben-Haim was an experienced defender. Yet both were to flop, unlike the third signing.

Hughes signed Kompany for an undisclosed fee, igniting a revolution of Belgian transfers to the Premier League. Back in 2013, Kompany explained to the media, “when I signed four and a half years ago I was the first, then Fellaini came and Vermaelen. Ever since then, a growing number of Belgian players is having an impact on the English Premier League.”

No less than 51 Belgians have now graced the Premier League with 18 playing in the division last season. Kompany himself has racked up 248 appearances and three Premier League trophies. 14 players now have over a century of English top-flight appearances to their name, undoubtedly benefitting from regularly playing in one of the most competitive leagues on the planet with 12 of those 14 in the current World Cup squad.

Five years ago, two-time Belgian Young Professional Footballer of the Year, Kompany, predicted that such a development would make a positive impact on the national side. “I hope that soon we will showcase our talent at international level too. We have a side now that deserves success, not just because of the quality, but because of the type of players we have. We have the character, the personalities.”

Is this their year?

Kompany’s prediction was correct. The Belgium national team returned to the main stage at World Cup 2014, where they reached the quarter-finals before repeating the feat again at Euro 2016. Will it be third time lucky in Russia?

Despite the arduous transformation over the past 14 years, many were disappointed that Belgium did not progress further in those two tournaments. Yet knockout football remains an issue. In 12 previous World Cups, Belgium had never won a knockout game in 90 minutes before an injury-time winner against Japan on Wednesday.

With players peaking, the natives are hoping this is the year they see the golden generation lift the golden trophy. Only Brazil, France or Uruguay and potentially England stand in their way...