Between the large, dominating countries of expressionistic France and industrious Germany, held in place below the giant killers of the Dutch to the north, lies a small humble country called Belgium. A place of residence that just under eleven million call home, that sits at the top of Europe like a wedge between the East and the West.
Such a geographical predicament has had an impeding effect on the country’s culture, and more importantly, its football.
The country owe’s most of its culture to influences from Holland and France, where the two countries share the badge of first language. The north of the country is generally considered to be Dutch speaking, while the south is mostly French. These divides have led to a certain degree of segregation between the Belgian people, where even up until the start of the 20th century, you had to speak French to be considered anything other than rural, uneducated or of a lower class.
The most recent situation was over as little a thing as the sponsors of the league – Jupiler beer- which is brewed in the French-speaking south, came under heavy scrutiny from fans in Brussel’s and other parts of the Dutch speaking north.
For a country split down the middle by such obvious differences, many consider the beautiful game to be the only thing that unites the tormented state. The football authority in the country, the Royal Belgian Football Association, came to fruition in 1895- one of the oldest in theworld – and is seen as a lynch pin, or a constant, throughout a country that is so aggressively diverse throughout its lands.
Belgian football never really took off until the 70’s where the league flourished under a wave of optimism and bright young players coming through the clubs.
The first signs came rather discreetly. Belgium qualified for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico for the first time in 42 years but failed to make it out of their group, finishing third above El Salvador, as hosts Mexico finished second and the soviet Union topping the group. This may come as little to no great deal of achievement, but compared to the past three generations, it was a change in the wind that would spark the beginning of Belgium football’s strong impression of European football for the next twenty years.
As the Belgian national side went on to reach the Semi final’s of the 1972 European championships two years later, the squad of players began to build up experience performing at the top of international football. This had a knock down effect to the domestic game as Belgian clubs began to venture further and further into European territories.
Following in the footsteps of neighbours, Holland, earlier in the decade. Belgium began to feature in European finals more and more, and the 70’s proved to be a fruitful and progressive decade for the small country as it never looked back on its way to establishing itself as a major player in European football.
From 1975 to 1977, Belgian clubs took part in five European finals throughout the three continental tournaments at the time. These moments were shared between two of Belgium’s largest clubs; Anderlecht from Brussels who picked up two Cup Winners Cup trophies in 1975 and 1977 and Club Brugge from Bruges, who reached the UEFA cup in 1976, and the European Cup in 1978 loosing both times to a Liverpool side that would go on to dominate England and Europe for the next 15 years.
The 80’s proved to be just as successful for Belgian football as the country saw the national team reach the 1986 World Cup Semi finals to loseout to Diego Maradonna’s Argentina side, as well as its domestic league producing teams that would outplay the rest of Europe to reach no less than five European finals, winning two of them. Anderlecht picked the Uefa Cup in 1983, and K.V. Mechelen picked up the European Cup Winners Cup in 1988 – perhaps the most remote team to ever win the competition-making themselves the last Belgian side to lift a European trophy.
After 1988 and into the 90’s, the Belgian Premier league began to slowly diminish in European football as television revenue began to play a bigger role in the development and capabilities of clubs around the continent. Like so many average sized counties, Belgium struggled to compete with surrounding bigger national leagues such as the French, Spanish or Italian to hold on to their players or bring in new recruits to help compete with foreign sides. Anderlecht and FC Antwerp stubbornly reached the Cup winners cup final’s respectively in 1990 and 1993 but by then the new flashy UEFA Champions League had robbed the once proud tournament of any prestige or worth. It seems the tournament and Belgian football, had a few things in common.
The Jupiler league tumbled through the late 90’s similarly to any league outside the top 4 or 5 leagues in Europe at the time. The familiartwo-fold problem of having a league where the top teams can’t compete with the best of Europe, and the rest of the Belgian sides unable to compete with the clubs at the top of the table.
Add to that the Bosman ruling in 1995 that effectively rendered any star player at smaller clubs, in charge, and you have the premise of amodern-day Belgian football league that is nothing more than a stepping stone to France or Holland for most foreign or young players. While were all watching Sky Sports tell tales of Arsenal’s and Chelsea’s picking the best of the bunch in Holland. Dutch side’s send armies of scouts to scowl the Belgian land for able replacements. (Ajax has two first team players from Belgium, PSV Eindhoven have three.)
As a result of this, Belgian players began moving to surrounding countries like Holland, France and Germany at younger ages and picked up aworld class youth training that resulted in high level technical players such as Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and ThomasVermaelen who wouldn’t of developed into such players in Belgian academies that taught physical ability over all else, at the time.
People in Belgium began to notice the link between their International stars and the up brining they received in foreign lands and in the early parts of the noughties, clubs in Belgium began to change their youth training from the old pragmatic physicality approach, to a more technical based routine, adopted from the Dutch.
This, and solely this, seems to the only bright light of hope shining out of Belgium at the moment. Take a Belgian national league that has finally got its act together with youth development, and couple it with surrounding countries that are only to happy to shepherd Belgian youngsters into Ligue 1, or Bundesliga quality stars, and you have a country that is quickly developing the stars of tomorrow.
Take one look at the Belgium squad and is easy to see. Players that some of our readers may be more familiar with such as Marouane Fellaini or Vincent Kompany who many have considered regulars, yet, products of foreign youth academies, are now joined by young starlets such as Romelu Lukaku of Anderlecht who at the age of 17, has 8 caps and 2 goals for his country and Jelle Vossen of Racing Genk with 6 caps and 1 goal for Belgium.
This will of course come down to the level of management available to these players and the persona of the players themselves to believe that staying put for the time being will help their career’s in the long term. With Jelle Vossen on 16 goals, and Romelu Lukaku on 10, it seems likely that the best of Europe will come sniffing in the summer to tempt them away to richer lands.
The league now finds itself in a situation where its producing players that can play anywhere in the world, and will rightfully demand that they do in time. The future of Belgian football now depends on whether the clubs can harness these players to their advantage, and keep them in the domestic league long enough for the clubs to make an impact in Europe and progress out of the rut it finds itself in.