False Nine writer Matt Malone takes a look at the recent influx of Belgians in English football and asks what they might be capable of…
For many years, asking a person to name three famous Belgians proved to be a sure fire way to bring about a prolonged silence followed by the sheepish response that perhaps, despite being fictional, Hercule Poirot and Tintin must count as the two great detectives summed up a country that was far more famous for its beer and waffles then it ever could be for the great people that represented it on a world stage.
This scene, though, looks to be rapidly changing as a large influx of talented Belgian youngsters descend upon the English game and are quickly finding themselves becoming household names.
The reasons for this sudden emergence of Belgian youth, unfortunately for those looking to set up a world-beating scouting network on Fifa 13, cannot be found in a single miraculous youth academy such as Ajax’s in the early 90s or Barcelona’s La Masia. Although the much-lauded academies of Standard Liege and Genk, as well as that of Anderlecht, have certainly have produced some great talent, it is very common for young Belgians, notable examples including Eden Hazard and Thomas Vermaelen, to move to the more established clubs of France’s Ligue 1 and Holland’s Eredivisie at a very early age. Kevin Mirallas, who has started his Everton career brightly with 3 goals already, moved to Lille in his early teens before finding himself scoring freely for Olympiacos in Greece. It is not in Belgium where many are spending their formative years as footballers before the select few make their big money moves to the upper echelons of European football. It may be the case, therefore, that the level of talent that Belgium is currently producing is nothing more than just a fortunate twist of fate, but moves for many of them to the Premier League will surely only aid their development. Three men in particular have stood out in recent years.
In the summer of 2008, the paltry £6 million spent by Manchester City on bringing in the versatile Vincent Kompany was somewhat overlooked when they broke the then British transfer record with the £32.5 million acquisition of Robinho. Over in Merseyside, a further £15 million, a club record, had been spent by Everton on 20-year-old defensive midfielder Marouane Fellaini. Both had been winners of the Ebony Shoe, given to the best player of African descent in the Jupiler Pro League, during their times at Anderlecht and Standard Liege respectively and have gone on to have huge impacts for their clubs. Just a year later Arsenal signed 23-year-old Thomas Vermaelen from Ajax and the three have since asserted themselves with great success at club and international level. The influence these three are likely to have had on their younger compatriots is unavoidable. All but three of the Belgian players who have since joined the Premier League had played and trained alongside Kompany, Vermaelen and Fellaini at international level prior to their moves, and so each man would have had a first-hand look at the quality the Premier League can create when on international duty.
It has also become increasingly common to hear a player mention conversations with fellow compatriots when choosing a move to a new country; look no further than Fernando Torres essentially begging Juan Mata to help him score at Chelsea or Per Mertesacker’s texts to lure Lukas Podolski to Arsenal. The influence Vermaelen and Kompany particularly must have in the Belgian dressing room- both after all have already captained the national side- must have a big impact on youngsters choosing to move across the channel and their advice invaluable when making a final decision. When coupled with the sensational start Eden Hazard has made to his Chelsea career since his £32 million summer move from Lille, the Premier League is only going to become a more attractive prospect to young Belgians and the increased quality of opponents they face on a weekly basis should quickly bear fruit at international level.
The words ‘Golden Generation’ are all too familiar to an English audience for whom the last decade have seen their optimism shattered at each tournament that was preceded by the media waxing lyrical about the talents of Messrs Gerrard, Lampard, Rooney and Terry. Although now viewed as something of a poisoned chalice due to the shameful lack of any success that has resulted at each occasion, the current crop of Belgian footballers, that saw players owned by Premier League clubs make up 12 of the 25 places in the squad that recently faced Wales and Croatia, have a chance to make that tag their own and shed its now negative connotations.
Although early days, it may not be completely unreasonable to suggest that, whilst qualifying for their first major tournament since 2002 would be a commendable achievement in itself, the talent they undoubtedly possess does not make matching their best ever performance, fourth in Mexico 1986, entirely beyond reach. What is for sure is that if Vincent Kompany’s dominant leadership of Manchester City’s title-winning side and Eden Hazard’s electrifying first month for Chelsea are any indication of what Belgian football is capable of producing, then both fans of English clubs and the clubs themselves have to take the attitude that when it comes to Belgian players, the more, the merrier.
Follow Matt Malone on Twitter: @mattmalone22