Belgium’s footballers discover the curse of being laden with gold

FOR a nation of just 11.5 million people, Belgium’s creation of a so-called “golden generation” of footballers was extraordinary. But the problem with a country suddenly coming across a team of excellent players is that too often it is forgotten that opponents also have good line-ups. While a golden crop might be the best a particular nation has nurtured, that doesn’t mean they will be good enough to be successful on the bigger stage. 

Endless qualifying tournaments against makeweights serve their purpose, but they don’t always equip a national team for the serious stuff. Building long lists of unbeaten games involving the likes of San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan may be good for the confidence, but it is against the seeded and almost seeded that results count. England, for example, were long considered the “king of friendlies” and a shoo-in for qualification, misleading parameters of success when it came to the full-blooded encounters with the top countries. Ambition can be raised to an unrealistic level.

Worthy

That’s not to say Belgium are not worthy of praise, or their position at the top of the FIFA and Elo rankings. They have had, for a few years, a truly outstanding squad of players, but the fear must be that a once-in-a-lifetime group may pass into history without any sort of formal recognition. In 2016, Wales upset their plans, in 2018 France edged them out of the World Cup and now a resurgent Italy have cast them adrift at the quarter-final stage. So easily, the dreams can fade and redemption is often only attainable in a couple of years. This time, if Belgium manage to keep the core of their team together, they will have a chance in Qatar in 2022. 

Like the Netherlands in the 1970s, it is unlikely Belgium will be able to replicate the strength of their recent squads very easily. The period between 2016 and 2021 has been their time, or at least it should have been. Their team represented one of the best European national teams of recent times, capable of exquisite football but ultimately, unable to last the pace in a tournament. They still have some of the most talented players around, but Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, glittering stars of the past five years, are both injury prone, and in Hazard’s case, he has stumbled upon an uncomfortable time at Real Madrid where he could easily fall out of favour. De Bruyne remains a brilliant example of the modern player, but he is 29 now. Hazard, whose game relied on agility and deception, has found himself watching his sibling, Thorgan, from the sidelines, a remarkable change of fortune from the days when the younger Hazard was very much in his brother’s shadow.

Age is the one aspect of football that cannot be controlled or ignored. Belgium’s squad is the second oldest in Euro 2020, coming in at 29.1 years compared to Sweden’s 29.2 -England, who may yet win the competition, have an average age of 25.2 – that’s almost four years younger. Experience, of course, is a key part of any successful squad, but in summer heat and after a long campaign, how much energy do players approaching their mid-30s have? Belgium have 10 players over 30 in their Euro 2020 squad and another eight between 28 and 29. Furthermore, they have only two below 25. This is very much about today and not tomorrow.

Future

The problem is, today didn’t quite work out, so can Belgium expect their 30-something club to improve? Surely, their best days are behind them? David Cameron, the hapless former UK Prime Minister, on leaving Downing Street following the calamitous Brexit vote, commented, “I was the future once”, sadly, Belgium are probably in that same position, a team with great prospects behind them.  

The question is, what does the future look like now? Their under-21 team failed to qualify for the Euros this year and their under-19s, for example, are little more than average. Yet Belgium remains a top exporter of talent and is one of the biggest providers of talent to the Premier League. At the same time, the average top-flight Belgian club’s squad comprises almost 60% expatriates. 

The current Belgium squad’s composition underlines how accustomed players are to plying their trade elsewhere. There are 20 clubs represented in the Euro 2020 squad and nine countries. Unsurprisingly, England provides 10 of the squad and the rest are spread across the other big five leagues, Japan, Turkey, Portugal and Belgium. Only two came from the Belgian domestic league, both from Bruges.

What next then, for coach Roberto Martinez? His record is superb, a win rate of 77% and over the past five years, just four defeats and 43 wins in 55 games. The defeats since 2017 have included the semi-final of the World Cup in 2018 (France 0-1) and the quarter-final of Euro 2020 against Italy (1-2). It’s hardly epic failure – some national teams would die for such a record – but expectation was high. Despite the current team being the culmination of the 20-year transformation of Belgian football, they know there’s no guarantee they will be able to maintain their momentum, at least not in the short-to-medium term.

Martinez, rightly, refused to be drawn on his future after losing to Italy, but gave due credit to his players: “There is real pride and understanding that these players did everything they could to try to get what we wanted. Unfortunately, we faced a very good team and the small margins went with them. That happens in football.”

The Belgian football authorities will be only too aware the red devils failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, as well as three consecutive Euros between 2004 and 2012. It may be just a little unreasonable to expect continuity for such a small nation, but in the meantime, it might be appropriate to recall the quality of football Belgium brought to the international stage over the past few years. Sometimes, the best teams do not get the rewards they deserve.

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Photo: Alamy

A game of survival: The Dutch, the Belgians and BeNeLiga

FOOTBALL’s polarisation over the past decade has prompted league administrators and business people to discuss solutions that can prevent their clubs from being marginalised. The game has become corporatized, meaning money talks louder than ever before in football. Size really does matter, both for a club and a league. 

The top five leagues in Europe represent the largest commercial markets. People talk about a football nation as a market these days when they discuss the growth of a club’s franchise. You only need listen to anyone from the rapidly growing football finance industry to hear phrases like “financing”, “expansion”, “global reach” and “facilities”. In the case of the latter, it isn’t stadium facilities, it is a term to describe borrowed money.

There’s another financial term that may soon become commonplace in big-time football: mergers and acquisitions. More specifically, we may be on the precipice of an era where leagues start to merge to achieve critical mass. How about a low country competition involving the cream of Belgium’s Pro League and the Netherlands’ Eredivisie?

Markets

Forty years ago, football’s top clubs came from a much broader geographic spread. Most European countries had a club that could compete, some more sustainably than others. In the Netherlands and Belgium, clubs like Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht and Bruges could hold their own and give anyone a tough, two-legged tie. 

Given these two countries were relatively small football “markets”, their clubs could not produce the resources needed to be continually successful on the international stage. Periodic moments of glory was really the best they could hope for. But it worked for a long time. The Netherlands, for example, produced three European champions who have won the top prize six times between them: Ajax (1971, 1972, 1973, 1995); Feyenoord (1970); and PSV Eindhoven (1988). Only England has had more different winners of the European Cup/UEFA Champions League (five). 

Belgium have not had much success in the competition, having produced one finalist, Bruges in 1978, but Anderlecht became something of an expert in the now defunct European Cup-Winners’ Cup, lifting the trophy twice and losing in two finals. At various times, both countries have developed decent national teams, but as Belgium proved in the 2018 World Cup, most of their players are now employed abroad. Belgium may have finished third in the Russian World Cup, but only once has a Belgian team won through to the round of 16 in the UEFA Champions League.

Given the domination of the big five leagues and the strength of their domestic football, it has become clear Belgium and the Netherlands are in danger of going the same way as other parts of Europe, if they have not already. True, Ajax Amsterdam are a huge club, with impressive support and heritage, but they have to work very hard to compete even when they have a strong side. In 2019, they reached the last four of the UEFA Champions League and then sold their top players, benefitting from huge fees but dismantling their latest exciting team. This is the model that clubs from outside the very top leagues exist on, developing talent and selling it to the likes of Manchester United, Juventus and Barcelona. Ajax, along with Benfica and Porto of Portugal are particularly proficient at this strategy.

Concessions

The combination of Belgium and the Netherlands could create a compelling league, one that would be more attractive to sponsors, broadcasters and media. The big issue will be the fans, who will undoubtedly be opposed to the breaking-up a traditional structure. There would also have to be some concession made to lower level football in both countries. But the union of the ninth and 11th strongest European leagues (according to the International Federation of Football History & Statistics) could create the sixth best across the continent, one that Deloitte believes could be worth € 400 million in broadcasting rights alone, compared to the € 80 million that both leagues each receive.

Both Belgium and the Netherlands, because of their size and history, have always been traders and merchants who have welcomed foreign involvement in society. Belgium’s capital, Brussels, is the home of the European Union and a gastronomic centre. The Dutch are a very mobile people who speak the best English in continental Europe. There are a lot of multinational companies across the Benelux region, including Anheuser Busch, KLM, Ahold, Heineken, Airbus and DSM.

The top clubs need to grow their revenue bases substantially if they are to become more competitive on the international stage. Average total income for Belgium’s top division is € 22 million, while the Netherlands totals € 33 million. Compared to the big five leagues, they both have a very long way to go: the Premier League average is € 293 million and the lowest, France, is € 95 million. The total revenues for the Eredivisie as a league amount to 

€ 594 million and for Belgium’s Pro League only € 344 million.

By wage bills, Belgian and Dutch clubs are also trailing behind the elite group. Ajax and Anderlecht both pay around € 35 million per season, lower than the less wealthy Premier League clubs (Sheffield United’s wage bill in 2020-21 is reputed to be £ 30 million). Consider also that Ajax’s salaries are a fraction of the teams they try to compete against in European competition. A more prosperous, more high-profile league could mean higher wages.

Upside

Could it also result in higher attendances? Belgium’s average gate for the Pro League is, in normal circumstances, 10,600 , which is around 1,300 lower than the highest ever average. The figures have been quite consistent, but the highest club ground capacity is just 30,000 at Standard Liège’s Stade Maurice Dufrasne. Clubs like Bruges, Liège and Anderlecht can draw 20,000-plus crowds quite easily, but further down, half of the Pro League struggles to get above 10,000. The overall stadium utilisation rate is 64%, so there is some upside.

The Netherlands has a stadium utilisation rate of 88%, thanks to an average Eredivisie crowd of around 18,000. Attendances are actually higher than they were in the golden age of Dutch football. Ajax remain one of Europe’s top draws in Europe with an average of 53,000. The Netherlands’ big three, Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, are all extremely well supported, but their crowds cannot go much higher without stadium development. The gap between the top and bottom in terms of gates is huge, but across the Eredivisie, all clubs are attracting healthy crowds.

The concept of a Belgium-Netherlands league – the BeNeLiga – has been discussed before, but increasingly, football people are concerned time is running out. Former Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, for instance, said it was a matter of survival as the elite clubs are moving towards isolation by establishing their own league. 

Belgium’s top clubs have agreed in principle but the Eredivisie has yet to vote on a merger. There are obvious benefits, both financial and technical, but plans to start such a competition may take longer than some advocates believe. At the moment, they are looking at 2025. It’s not just a question of taking 10 Dutch and eight Belgian and shaking it like a cocktail. It may take time, but if it does emerge, it could be very interesting.

Photo: Flickr James Gridland CC-BY-2.0

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