Belgian football’s hopes are high that a generation of hard work in rebuilding from the grass roots will bear fruit at this World Cup, but coaches are already looking beyond and at how to outfox bigger rivals next time.
They have seen Germany this year continue a run of champions going from boom to bust as winning teams age — Spain, Italy and France also all crashed after winning a previous World Cup; and the Belgian
FA, and national coach Roberto Martinez, want younger talent lined up even before their elders have delivered.
“For the next four years, it’s very important for our young talented players to get experience,” Bob Browaeys, who has been national youth coach for nearly 20 years, told Reuters, arguing that past champions have been slow to refresh the first team.
Martinez, who saw his native Spain as reigning European and world champions humbled in Brazil in 2014, used a last group game after Belgium were through to give his reserves a run out; the likes of Youri Tielemans, 21, Adnan Januzaj and Anderlecht captain Leander Dendoncker, both 23, and national skipper Eden Hazard’s little brother Thorgan, beat a makeshift England 1-0.
“The so-called ‘golden generation’ wasn’t playing today,” said Martinez, trumpeting Belgium’s strength in depth to come.
Browaeys has been part of a project to produce a new style of play and to maximise a small country’s talent pool that was born out of shame at Belgium’s poor showing as co-hosts of Euro 2000 with their more successful neighbours the Dutch.
Eighteen years later, that “golden generation” of players like Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, produced by that system of teaching ball skills and vision from a young age in a network of youth clubs and schools, were the top scoring team the first round in Russia and believe nothing is beyond them.
Now, said Browaeys, “It’s the moment that they have to play for first place … You need luck … but I’m convinced that it’s possible. The players and the staff know this.”
Win or lose, with a Round of 16 game against Japan on Monday and possible quarter-final against Brazil, Browaeys believes that Martinez, long based in England’s Premier League where half the Belgian squad plays, has tuned in to the Belgian dream after taking over following disappointment in Brazil and at Euro 2016.
“The football that Martinez wants to play is exactly the same as our vision 20 years ago,” he said of Belgium’s creative dribbling and high pressing. “We wanted to produce another kind of player, another playing style. It’s very satisfying.”
Since a narrow defeat by Argentina in the 2014 quarter-final and being dumped out by Wales at the same stage of the Euros two years ago, the team had matured, Browaeys said. But it was also vital to look beyond the current crop of talent and do better than the likes of Spain in maintaining the highest level.
That meant giving games to those coming through behind. “This generation had a big advantage that they could play in the A-team since they were 18, 19 years old because there was a lost generation before,” Browaeys said. It was vital now to give those in Belgium’s youth teams a chance at the top level.
Looking at Spain and France in the past, he said, “You had a fantastic generation but there was no place for young players.”
One day, he said, “It can be that even an Eden Hazard is not good enough and then you have to change him. And it’s not easy.”