It has been a long time since Belgium commanded any sort of attention in the footballing world. There was a time when they were a useful combo on the international stage, and their domestic teams – notably Anderlecht, Standard Liege and FC Bruges – performed well in European competitions. Players like Paul Van Himst, Eric Gerets and Enzo Scifo were very highly regarded across Europe, but the most influential and derided of more recent players has to be Jean-Marc Bosman, the man who changed the face of professional football and planted the seeds for the absurd sums of money that are now shovelled the way of players across the world.
Belgium, generally, does not bring forth heroes. Ask anyone who is the most famous son of Flanders or Wallonia and they will probably come up with Tin-Tin or Inspector Poirot, two characters from fiction. As for football, it has been a very lean period for Belgian football, involving scandals, falling gates and failure to qualify for major competitions, the mood in Brussels and Bruges is changing. And it is being fuelled by a group of players that could justify the use of that much-abused cliché of “golden generation”.
At the apex of this resurgence is Christian Benteke (right), Aston Villa’s young striker who has attracted a lot of attention in recent months. I thought it was time to run the eye over this very imposing and powerful player. Benteke had scored twice for Villa in their surprise 3-1 win at Arsenal on the opening day of the season. Nobody doubted Benteke’s quality in 2012-13 – he scored 49% of Aston Villa’s goals last season and stood out in a side that, at one time, looked bound for relegation. That Villa manager Paul Lambert kept the 22 year-old, who joined the club in 2012 from Genk, represented a major coup.
Benteke ran out against Chelsea to some – mostly – good natured ribbing. He’s a target now, thanks to his goals and his physique, which makes him instantly recognisable to opposition fans. “He’s a big bastard,” said the fan behind me. “No wonder they call him the beast. He’s a monster.”
Benteke was well marshalled for much of the game, spending much of the 90 minutes in a tussle with Chelsea’s Ivanovic. But on the stroke of half-time, he received the ball inside the area and sent a low, hard shot inside Petr Cech’s goal to silence the Stamford Bridge crowd – all except the noisy Villa section that had almost incessantly chanted Benteke’s name.
But to gain some sort of perspective on how Belgium have progressed as a footballing nation, you have to also consider who is vying with Benteke for the main striking role. It is Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku, who has returned to the club after a loan period with West Bromwich Albion. Lukaku is known as “the tank” and is a year or two younger than Benteke. “He’s an even bigger bastard,” said the weight-watching fan to the left of me. My thoughts were more along the lines of, “put those two up front and there will be bodies laying all over the pitch.”
He came from Anderlecht two years ago and the Chelsea management saw him as “Drogba Lite” when he joined the club. He’s more like “Drogba heavy”, but it’s all muscle and strength. He may, indeed, be Chelsea’s answer to their striking problems although he’s still raw and error-prone. Already, though, the Chelsea fans have taken to him after his 17 goals with West Bromwich, mostly as substitute.
Benteke and Lukaku are not Belgium’s only options for goals. Mousa Dembele of Tottenham and Marouane Fellaini of Everton are both much-coveted players, and there’s the elegant performing pony that is Eden Hazard of Chelsea. Add to that list players like Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) and Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) and you can see why there is so much optimism in the bars and restaurants surrounding the Grand Place in Brussels.
It’s been a long time since the “feel-good” factor existed in Belgium. They were runners-up in the 1980 European Championship in Italy and finished fourth in the World Cup in 1986. But since then, it’s been downhill, culminating in a poor performance as joint hosts in the 2000 Euros. At a club level, Anderlecht won two European Cup Winners Cup in the 1970s and a UEFA Cup in 1983. Now, Belgium’s leading lights – once the second cousins of total football – are nowhere on the club map.
But why has Belgian football suddenly come to life once more? It can be traced back to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when Belgium finished fourth in the football tournament with a vibrant young team. It was part of a 10-year plan initiated by Michel Sablon, the national technical director of the Belgian FA. Sablon and his team issued a brochure to all clubs on how to oversee player development right down to a very young age. The aim to was to get Belgian teams playing and training in the same way with a big emphasis on players development, not results.
It seems to be working well. Not only are Belgium’s players sought-after commodities, but the national team should qualify for World Cup 2014. They are currently three points clear of Croatia and have 19 points from seven games in their group. A point in Zagreb on October 11 will just about do it. If they do get to Rio, then they will be worth watching. I’m looking forward to seeing “the beast” in action in Brazil – he may even put Tin-Tin and that period piece detective in the shade.