It may have taken 88 minutes for Belgium to grab their second win in the 2014 World Cup group section and secure qualification for the knockout stages of the tournament but for Belgian fans, the wait to see this moment has been a lot longer. Belgium is revelling in what has been proclaimed as the Golden Generation – a group of talented players who have come through in recent years and are accredited with turning around the fate of Belgian football. However the evolution of Belgian football should be credited to the vision of one man, Michel Sablon who put the wheels in motion many years ago. It was in 2000 when Belgium was co-hosting the European Championships with Holland that was the main turning point. Placed in a group with Turkey, Italy and Sweden, expectations were high that the hosts would reach the knockout stages with relative ease. Despite an early win against the Swedes, Belgium suffered back to back defeats against Italy and Turkey eventually finishing in third place in the group and missing out on progression. With an aging squad including captain Lorenzo Staelens, Luc Nilis and current Belgian manager, Marc Wilmots Belgium were looking towards the future generation and what they saw was bleak.
Belgian football was on a downward slide and faced years of mediocrity. Few saw the problem as clear as Sablon and even fewer would have thought that the overhaul needed was so radical. Sablon realized that the Belgian league was failing, that it was struggling to produce on a regular basis talented players for the national side. Added into this, any ones that did emerge moved abroad at an early age in order to play in a better league. So he created a new blueprint for the national obsession, one that went back to basics and focused on what was really important. What he came up with was hardly revolutionary but instead common sense. To succeed, he needed clubs on every level to embrace his plan, not partially but fully committing to it. Changing the philosophies and mindset of an entire nation is one thing but managing to convince everyone to implement it is another but somehow he managed to do just that. Not that it was an easy task, especially given the changes he was asking them to make at a youth level. Sablon asked for all teams in the Under 18’s and below to play a 4-3-3 passing formation and more importantly forget about winning.
He realised that younger players and their coaches were too obsessed with the result of the game and what it meant for their position in the table to care about perfecting their individual game. He used university professors to film and study over 1,500 youth games in an attempt to show them what he meant. The result was exactly what he thought and backed his argument that winning at all costs was killing the game. So with the support of the Belgian FA, he simply scrapped the league tables and reorganised youth football introducing smaller pitches, five against five at junior level, seven against seven for older kids and a renewed focus on technique development. The best players from across Belgium were regularly taken out of their clubs and sent to six performance academies for two weeks at a time. This meant that the younger players got to know each other early on which has helped as they all migrated to international football, first at youth level then later to the full internationals you see today at the World Cup. The years passed slowly, with friction from the clubs and youth teams an ever present until in 2007, Belgium’s youth changes started to show promise when they made the last four of the European Under-17 championships for the first time in their history. The stars of that tournament were Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke.
Now 14 years after instigating change, the fruits of Sablon’s labour were on show at this years World Cup. Belgium possessed one of the more talented squads in the tournament and was even tipped as potential dark horses to win the trophy. In every position, Belgium has star players who are all plying their trade at the highest level. As an attacking team, Belgium boast the likes of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and Romelu Lukaku and not forgetting Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke who only due to injury is not in the squad. Their backline is impressive too with Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany playing in front of one of the best goalkeepers in the current game, Thibaut Courtois. Indentifying a weak link in this vibrant squad is near impossible and the talent doesn’t stop there with a host of youngsters coming through the youth team like Thorgen Hazard, Laurens De Bock, Dennis Prat and Massimo Bruno, all eager to break into Wilmot’s team.
Other countries are now following suit in particular Scotland who have taken the Belgian blueprint and have implementing it fully with the hope of having the same effect. Formerly under the guidance of Mark Wotte, the SFA invested £20m in seven performance schools and indoor training centres. But they face an uphill battle to change the mindset of Scottish clubs who are struggling to stay afloat and with the mentality of the Scottish public in general. If they want to have the same success as Belgium, then following Wotte’s plan is the only way forward regardless if of who is in charge. The results may not be obvious now but if Scotland can produce a squad with the same quality of talent as Belgium for the 2022 World Cup, then it will be money and time well spent. For Belgium, the future looks bright with the current squad set up to dominate for the next 10 years. The possibilities of this team are endless and it may start with a surprise World Cup final victory in the near future. If they can lift that trophy, Sablon will be hailed as a hero, the man who changed Belgian football for the better.
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