Belgium’s football fortunes have transformed rapidly over the past decade.
The Red Devils have just topped their World Cup qualification group, which sparked wild celebrations across the country.
Brazil 2014 will be the first major tournament that ‘Les Diables Rouges’ have qualified for in 12 years. Some pundits reckon that they could go all the way in next summer’s competition.
And the names on the Belgian team sheet add up to the very best of fantasy football. Stars such as Chelsea’s Eden Hazard have taken England’s Premier League by storm.
It was an early exit at the 2002 World Cup that prompted a root-and-branch overhaul of Belgium’s coaching setup
Michel Sablon, the Belgian FA’s former technical director, hired a team of sports scientists to find out what was going wrong.
“Before we played 11 a side, we did some analysis and players were not touching the ball. They ran but without any pleasure,” he told euronews.
“So we changed the game according to the age of the players: five-a-side until seven years old, eight-a-side until ten years old and then 11 against 11 (after that).”
Sablon and his team drafted a blueprint that focused on basic skills.
The working group also moved to demand higher minimum qualifications for coaches: a UEFA B Licence for youth coaches; an A Licence for amateur coaches, and the UEFA Pro Licence for the managers of professional teams.
They also said youth teams placed too much emphasis on results and that a ‘win at all costs’ mentality was proving their undoing.
The country’s top coaches then criss-crossed Belgium to convince all football association clubs and schools to play the same way: a 4-3-3 formation.
Sablon said that they had been inspired by Dutch coach Rinus Michels, the godfather of ‘Total Football’.
“Why did we chose 4-3-3? Because it allows players to occupy different positions. It teaches players to play on the wings. It trains those who play at the back by improving their distribution of the ball; it improves the positional awareness in the midfield. We did all that for a reason. It took ten years but it’s not by chance that all these youngsters are coming through now,” he told euronews.
Belgium’s steady rise through the FIFA rankings — they were ranked sixth in the world as of September 2013 — has led many to ask if this model could be copied abroad?
In England, the debate has centered around capping the number of foreigners who can play in the first XI of club sides.
For the coach of Belgium’s under 21 team, Johan Walem, you have to trust your homegrown talent.
As a player, Walem spent years plying his trade in Italy Serie A and is considered as one of Belgium’s best midfielders of his generation.
“Limiting the number of foreigners in a league. It’s a nice debate, that’s true. But I think you need to look further than that. You need to look at how you train your youngsters,” he said.
“Maybe we should see if, in Belgium, we could work with Belgian players. England with the English. Instead of bringing in too many foreigners, who are too young too early.”
After a decade of hard work on the training ground, supporters say that in Brazil, the sky’s the limit for this impressive young side.