Belgium: A Golden Generation or all a load of waffle?

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 05/01/12)

Golden generations ey! Remember those? But where England’s destined crop failed to realise their potential, can a talented crop of youngsters coming out of Belgium succeed? Or will they too fall foul of early hype? One thing that can certainly be said is that, despite Belgium’s reputation for mediocrity, their national team boasts some of the most exciting young players in Europe right now, and on 2nd June they will have a chance to pit their wits against England at Wembley in a friendly.

Despite having a population of only 11 million, they were a regular feature at World Cups during the 80s and 90s with the likes of Scifo, Ceulemans, Nilis and Wilmots all playing prominent roles.  Much like Uruguay they have shown that you don’t necessarily need to be a big country to compete on the world stage.  However, in recent times Belgium have suffered.  The last time Belgium qualified for a major tournament was a decade ago and they will have to wait until at least 2014 after they failed to qualify for Euro 2012, coming third to Germany and Turkey.  But it seems that they now have their best squad in a long time and a good chance of re-establishing themselves among Europe’s elite.

In Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany they have two of the best centre backs in the Premiership.  On top of that they have highly rated Ajax duo Jan Vertonghen  and Toby Alderweireld.  Ajax captain Vertonghen, 24, is a classy centre back who can also play on the left, whilst Alderweireld, 22, is equally adept at right back and pops up with his fair share of goals.  Throw in the experience of Van Buyten and they have a very solid backline indeed.  Behind them they also have some promising young keepers in Chelsea summer signing Thibaut Courtois, currently on loan at Atletico Madrid, and Sunderland first choice Simon Mignolet.

They also have plenty of strength in midfield.  Marouane Fellaini and his voluminous fro has been a regular feature in Everton’s side for a number of years now and this best is still yet to come from the imposing midfielder.  I have long been a huge admirer of Steven Defour since his swashbuckling midfield displays for Standard Liege.  Porto’s 6 million euro signing of him was an absolute steal.  Defour’s old teammate Axel Witsel, now also in Portugal with Benfica, is another highly talented midfielder and when you consider that these players are 24, 23 and 22 respectively it is striking how much experience they have amassed despite their young ages.  Furthermore, they have some young exciting wingers such as Kevin de Bruyne, Yassine El Ghannasy and Dries Mertens, who is having a barnstorming season with PSV at the moment, having netted 13 times in 17 games.  The production line doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon either with Dennis Praet at Anderlecht also looking an exciting midfield prospect too

However, the undoubted star and also one of the hottest properties in Europe right now is Eden Hazard.  At just 20, the tricky winger inspired Lille to the Ligue 1 title last year as he seared through defences and collected plaudits everywhere he went.  Lightning quick with great balance, grace and creativity, he is unlikely to stay much longer at Lille with some of the biggest clubs clamouring for his signature.  If he continues this upward trajectory Belgium will have a real star who can give them that all important cutting edge.

They aren’t short of firepower up front either.  Fulham’s industrious forward Moussa Dembele is gaining a lot of attention for his consistent performances at Craven Cottage and Genk poacher Jelle Vossen has a good domestic record, scoring 20 last season, and seems to be developing nicely too.  Romelu Lukaku burst onto the scene when he was just 16 and earned early comparisons with Didier Drogba due to his size and power.  Although we haven’t seen much of him at Chelsea, his record at Anderlecht was impressive and at 18 still has plenty of time to become a very important player for Belgium.  A loan move might suit him to gain more top level experience but with Drogba at the African Cup of Nations and Torres still misfiring he might be handed an opportunity at Stamford Bridge.  There is plenty of depth with the likes of Mallorca new boy Marvin Ogunjimi, who has notched 5 times in 7 appearances, and Kevin Mirallas as well.

With the majority of the Belgium squad still under 26 currently, it could be said that the lack of experience, especially at major international tournaments, might be a stumbling block.  However, the majority have experience in many of Europe’s top domestic leagues and continental competitions that belies their young age.  Their defence and midfield has depth and strength with a number of strong characters and leaders among them, but the success of their strikers will rest on the development of players such as Hazard and Lukaku, who can both potentially be world beaters and thus fundamental to Belgium’s future success.

Their qualifying group for Brazil 2014 looks promising for the Rode Duivels with the tricky but not insurmountable Croatia and Serbia along with home nations Scotland and Wales.  All countries will fancy their chances and it should be quite even, but if the Belgians fulfil their potential I think they should make their first major tournament in over 10 years.  The friendly with England will be an interesting encounter between a two golden generations, one fading and the other very much rising, and may well give us a glimpse of how good Belgium can go on to be.