IT WASN’T LONG AGO that 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 1990s and noughties in Belgian football hits a start context.
By noughties, I mean recent history, perhaps 2008 onwards. Much had 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 at World Cup 2014.
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 world-class 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 which had the resources to invest in youth.
After the fine generation 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, 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. Over 230 goals in 457 games tell 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 Pelé. He thinks as fast too. His only weakness? He’s Belgian.”
Van Himst adopted this forward-thinking, 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, and 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 proficiency.
Perhaps the latter of two points was a natural progression. Belgian football has always been synonymous with technically sound players. A reversion back to the aforementioned players brings together one telling attribute: technique. Even Albert, a predominantly defensive player, was astute in either central defence or midfield and could pass and strike the ball as cleanly as anyone at Newcastle in the mid-90s.
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 football 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 France 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.
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Leekens placed a great emphasis on coaching the foremost young trainers at home. He would organise seminars and coaching sessions that focused on the improvement of close control, a player’s weaker foot and increasing the speed of play. How quickly could a team counter? At what pace? These were the questions he asked himself and those that 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.
His coaching of the counter-attack is one of his most enduring legacies, one that is evident across world football today. Last season, Real Madrid and Liverpool were as adept at countering as anyone. They frequently travelled 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 the Belgian game.
A look across the national team today and the evidence of speed of play coaching is clear. Eden Hazard’s prominent strength is travelling with the ball at speed. Romelu Lukaku enjoys turning and shooting early. Mertens, De Bruyne, Carrasco are much the same. Nainggolan plays early; he’s no ball dweller. You can continue, Witsel keeps it moving, as does Fellaini. Dembélé and Origi also play 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 playing at speed. Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Meunier and Toby 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 Liège 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 €19 million 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 accumulated €80 million in transfer fees – 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 paltry figure in today’s game 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.
In the long term, Genk’s aim is to continue to develop players for their own benefit as well as the national team – just like they achieved with Kevin De Bruyne.
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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 Europe’s finest talent from the 1997 age group, moved for €25 million to Monaco in 2017.
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. There needs to be a greater cause.
Consequently, clubs can invest in youth facilities and better 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’ll recoup the 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 economic growth, is slowly 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 models 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 clear.
The national team is blessed with an abundance of talent today. The way things are going, perhaps the Pro League will be next