Home and away defeats by Bosnia. Coach Rene Vandereycken sacked. Qualification hopes for next year’s World Cup over. Even talk in some quarters of ending the national team.
By Leander Schaerlaeckens in Brussels
Belgium, so it seems, could use some good news. But actually the tidings aren’t all that bad.
Despite struggling to impose themselves on the hoped-for road to South Africa, an extremely talented generation of young Belgian talent is breaking through.
Vincent Kompany, 23 and Marouane Fellaini, 21, who are physically imposing themselves on Premier League midfields for Manchester City and Everton respectively, are just two of the new breed of exciting prospects.
“The potential is definitely there,” says Gill Swerts, who has been having a great season himself in Holland with AZ. “People have been talking about it since the [2008 Summer] Olympics.
“It was a very strong collective. And they’re very strong mentally and physically. They got to play against Ronaldinho, and in a stadium with 70,000 spectators, against China. Mentally, that was a special experience that will teach them to play without stress.”
For Swerts, the pick of the new crop is Lille’s Eden Hazard.
“I haven’t played with him much yet, but you can see how strong he is on the ball and he’s only 18 years old,” adds Swerts. “He’s well-built, has great moves and plays in the French league, which is tough, so he’s certainly a lad with a big future.”
Jean-Francois De Sart is also a fan of the teenage midfielder. “He’s a very big talent,” says the man who coached Belgium at the Games in Beijing. “He was decisive in the Under-17s against Spain, two years ago. In the semi-final we played against [Barcelona’s] Bojan Krkic and [Hazard] was better than Bojan at that tournament.”
A lithe attacking midfielder, best suited on the right flank, with searing acceleration and a seeming inability to lose the ball, the hype surrounding Hazard is growing following his recent torching of Lyon’s left-back Fabio Grosso and senior debut for Belgium in a friendly against Luxembourg.
“The lad is most certainly ready for it,” says out-going national boss Vandereycken. “It never once occurred to me not to put him on, because he’s so strong.
“He shows that he does possess enormous amounts of class. Otherwise I wouldn’t even put him on the bench at his age.”
And Vandereycken is also full of praise for 21-year-old Moussa Dembele, who is a team-mate of Swerts in Alkmaar.
“He’s already good enough to handle the level of a top European club,” believes Vandereycken. “Moussa can handle anything.”
Unfortunately, though, these up-and-coming stars will have to wait at least four more years before getting the chance to show what they can do on the world stage.
Belgium have been in all sorts of trouble at international level of late – even managing to play the Slovakian national anthem before a friendly at home to Slovenia.
The World Cup-qualifying campaign was pre-empted by a desperate and pricey attempt by the Belgian federation to drum up supporter, but it failed as most matches were played in half-empty stadiums. The national team even moved away from the crumbling Koning Boudewijn because the half-empty, 50,000-seater stadium looked cavernous.
So poor is the side’s support in fact that when hosting Bosnia in March, the Belgian federation tried to make sure those buying tickets for Belgium-sections signed contracts that they’d support only Belgium in order to ensure that local Bosnians didn’t occupy Belgian seats. Yet at least three sections allocated to Belgium supporters were filled with men clearly holding Bosnia more dear to their hearts.
“Every big tournament that you miss [is a setback],” Vandereycken confessed following the home defeat against Bosnia. “Every international game a young player plays is important.
“The best example I can give is that of Holland in the 1980s. They’d missed a few big tournaments, even though they definitely had more big talents there.
“But because [Belgian] had gone far in the European cup competitions and the national squad played in the [Euro and World Cup] finals, we could compete with them at that point, because we were getting that experience.”
While missing that vital big-tournament familiarity is a major blow to the young Belgians, the Bosnia matches also exposed another problem: a growing rift between the side’s few remaining older players and the tidal wave of youngsters.
“Lots will have to change if this generation is ever to achieve anything. This was a matter of maturity,” claimed veteran striker Wesley Sonck, who blamed youth for Belgium’s failure.
Angry young team-mates hit back with Fellaini asking: “What’s he on about? This has nothing to do with our mentality.” And Standard Liege’s 20-year-old Axel Witsel claimed: “I think Sonck is a little frustrated. He’s 32 [although he’s actually 30] and this was his last chance for a World Cup.”
Erik Gerets, Marc Wilmots, Franky Vercauteren, Dick Advocaat, De Sart and even Louis Van Gaal are among those mentioned as Vandereycken’s successor. But whoever gets the nod faces a gargantuan task of not only healing a rift in the dressing room but quashing talk from those who want to see a Flemish “national” team.
The trilingual nation, which was once called “an aberration of history” by Charles De Gaulle, is essentially comprised of three culturally divergent and mostly autonomous bits.
Telling for the country’s confusion is the fact that those who cheer on the national side don’t use native chants of “Belgique” or “Belgie” but rather opt to shout for “Belgium”.
As one Belgian journalist quipped after the 4-2 defeat against Bosnia: “We have no manager, no stadium and no country.”