Belgium flagBelgium have risen to fifth place in the FIFA rankings, their highest place ever. And although questions can be asked about the validity of those rankings, it is an undisputed fact that national coach Marc Wilmots has a talented squad at his disposal; one which is packed with players who are performing regularly in some of Europe’s biggest leagues.

This is in sharp contrast with the country’s top flight – the Belgian Pro League – which is at one of its lowest ebbs in terms of the number of players possessing that essential mix of quality and experience.

The performances of Belgian clubs in Europe have confirmed this. Of the four teams involved in this season’s Champions League and Europa League – Anderlecht, Standard Liege, Genk and Zulte Waregem – only Genk recorded a victory in their combined first 12 games of the group stage. What’s the reason? Well, as the saying goes, “money doesn’t talk, it screams”.

These days Belgian clubs play in front of small crowds and their budgets are minuscule compared to many European countries. But this wasn’t always the case. In 1978, Club Brugge reached the Final of the European Cup, where they lost to Liverpool, and in the same year Anderlecht won the Cup-winners Cup. Even smaller teams used to be big in Europe, with Mechelen winning the Cup-winners Cup in 1988 and Royal Antwerp reaching the Final in 1993.

However, this decline in the fortunes of Belgian club sides might just have a silver lining as they are investing in youth in an unprecedented way.

Anderlecht have the youngest squad in this season’s Champions League, while Club Brugge, Genk and Standard Liege have all fielded teams in the domestic league that are sprinkled with teenagers.

Neerpede academy
In the mid 1990s, Anderlecht decided to invest heavily in new facilities. Club directors visited academies in England, Italy, France and Holland before finalising the design of the Neerpede academy, which was officially opened in 2011. The £10million complex houses training pitches, fitness rooms, a swimming pool and all the things necessary to produce the next Romelu Lukaku or Vincent Kompany.

In February of this year, the club won the prestigious Viareggio tournament with a team that included seven long-term members of its academy. It was only the second time in 33 years that the trophy had been won by a team from outside Italy. Two months later, Nabil Jaadi was voted the player of the tournament as they won the Aegon Future Cup in Amsterdam. Finally, in September, midfielder Youri Tielemans became the third-youngest player to appear in the Champions League, aged 16 years 148 days.

Before Neerpede’s opening, Standard Liege had inaugurated their own impressive Robert-Louis Dreyfus academy. This advanced facility contains grass and synthetic pitches, a hotel, medical centre, restaurant and gyms, and recent graduates to Standard’s current first-team squad include Michy Batshuayi, Dino Arslanagic and Ibrahima Cisse.

Over at Club Brugge, Bjorn Engels and Brandon Mechele have been regular partners in the centre of defence, while Lukaku’s cousin, Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo, is waiting in the wings.

At Genk, Anthony Limbombe and Jordy Croux are both getting games and 17-year-old striker Siebe Schrijvers, who is very highly thought of, recently scored his first league goal.

Priced out 

For many years, Belgian clubs have been priced out of buying players ready for first-team football, with Anderlecht’s ¤5m purchase of Partizan Belgrade’s Aleksandar Mitrovic being the exception (see 6 of the best, page 62). As a result, they have had to focus on developing their own players and blooding them
at an early age.

There is also a significant number of young players emerging from a mixed-ethnic background – a phenomenon that has happened later in Belgium than in many countries. For example, the national team’s 23-man squad at the 2002 World Cup contained just one player of mixed origins, Mbo Mpenza, while the current side has players with roots in the Congo, Morocco, Mali and Martinique. This is a major change, similar to the one that transformed French football over a decade ago with Les Bleus.

But while this emphasis on youth development is all well and good, young players need time to adapt to top-flight football and it is not easy for clubs to find the right balance between youth and experience. And then there is the lurking presence of bigger clubs from the English Premier League.

Jean Kindermans, head of Anderlecht’s academy, is on record as saying he deplores the number of scouts attending the club’s under-14 games, videoing the players, and talking to parents and players alike. And Kindermans has a right to be concerned about the flow of young talent out of the club: Chelsea signed Belgium Under-17s captain Charley Musonda, Manchester City took centre-back Mathias Bossaerts and, most high profile of all, Manchester United snapped up winger Adnan Januzaj.

Although the advancement of such young talent will continue to benefit the national team in the future – even
if Brussels-born Januzaj has yet to commit himself to the Diables Rouges – the country’s club sides will continue to struggle if foreign clubs cherry-pick their best players before a transfer fee can be asked for.

By John Chapman