“I think this team can make history, it is just a matter of believing in themselves.” The words of Thierry Henry, the current assistant coach for the Belgium national team. Neither he, nor many other observers of Les Diables Rouges doubt the existence of stellar playing talent within their ranks, but to him, the failure to deliver success on the global stage thus far has its roots firmly in a lack of confidence at the sharp end of tournaments.
After a near flawless series of qualifying campaigns for the last three tournaments, expectations grow that 2018 could finally be the breakout year for this golden generation of footballers. Similar noises were put forward prior to the preceding two tournaments – the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 European Championship – so what has changed this time around to increase the likelihood of success?
Of greatest significance is the change in coaching staff. Gone after the underwhelming European Championships was Coach Marc Wilmots, with not only disappointing results against his name, but also a feeling that he was being outsmarted by international Coaches boasting less-talented playing personnel, something that was crystallised by the defeats to Antonio Conte’s Italy at the 2014 World Cup and Chris Coleman’s Wales at Euro 2016.
In his place came Roberto Martinez, looking to rebuild his career trajectory after a downward spiral at Everton. What at first glance appeared a left-field appointment made a certain amount of sense considering his knowledge of English football – where the vast majority of the squad ply their trade – and former direct management of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini.
There is some doubt that he was the Belgian Football Association’s first pick, particularly following Louis Van Gaal’s candid revelation in January that he turned down the job. However, he has nonetheless been given a far-reaching remit, with tournament success a clear pre-requisite, but also longer-term strategic oversight ensuring the association is set up for future success.
In spite of Martinez presiding over a qualifying campaign in which his charges only dropped two points and registered a goal difference of +37, there lies a more complicated picture underneath. During the 3-3 friendly draw with Mexico in late 2017, the Red Devils spent long periods without the ball and lacked organisational structure, something which didn’t go amiss to Kevin De Bruyne who went public with his criticism of the Coach’s approach.
“Mexico were just tactically better,” the Manchester City man complained. “As long as we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico. It’s a pity that we have not yet found a solution.”
Those familiar with Martinez’s Everton tenure wouldn’t have been surprised with his conciliatory response to the criticism, declaring – not entirely convincingly – that it “wasn’t a personal attack” and praising De Bruyne’s winning mentality. Perhaps wisely he chose to eschew going toe-to-toe with one of his most influential players months before the World Cup.
De Bruyne hasn’t been the only one to openly disapprove of his boss’s judgements. Radja Nainggolan, arguably one of the country’s most talented midfielders, has himself had a storied relationship with the Catalan since his appointment. Initially selected, he was then left out of last summer’s friendlies, which prompted him to angrily retire from national duty. However he was selected again for November’s friendlies with Mexico and Japan, which he subsequently had to withdraw from with injury.
Nainggolan’s disgruntlement centred on an inconsistent selection policy which saw – in his opinion – less deserving individuals selected. “It makes no sense. He calls up Youri Tielemans who is sitting on the 2bench and playing only a few minutes at Monaco,” Nainggolan argued.
“When he was appointed, Martinez said that the Red Devils must play in top competitions. Now that Axel Witsel is in China, suddenly that doesn’t apply anymore,” he continued. “I played 52 games for Roma, who were second in Serie A last season. There is always something, some reason to leave me out.” It remains to be seen how this particular relationship develops in the run-up to Russia.
Assessing the state of the game in Belgium behind the immediate playing personnel, significant progress has been made, in no small part thanks to the roadmap of former technical director Michel Sablon. It is instructive to explore the components of his strategic blueprint, which he oversaw up until his departure in 2015, to fully understand the current strong state of the association and its shop window, the senior squad.
Sablon, on the back of years of underachievement, addressed a number of his country’s thorniest challenges, such as a lack of contact with young players, an inconsistent technical approach and fractured communities. Ground zero was the 2000 European Championship group phase decider against Turkey, during which his countrymen were achingly short of quality and invention and went down 0-2 in front of an expectant home crowd in Brussels. From here, Sablon set about creating his vision.
A portion of funds from hosting the tournament was ring-fenced for youth development, and from here came the successful creation of the new national centre in Tubize, just outside Brussels, and eight Topsport schools. These geographically dispersed academies were designed to allow players to commute from home, which had the subsequent advantage of increasing pitch time with youngsters to as much as four times a week.
He also stipulated that all youth sides in Belgium would line up in a 4-3-3 formation. This had the benefit of standardising the tactical approach whilst also using a structure that would develop the players of the future, getting away from the 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 systems that in the main produced ‘workers and runners’, as coined by Bob Browaeys, part of Sablon’s directorate.
‘L’Union fait la force’ – strength in unity – is Belgium’s motto. Perhaps most crucially, the governing body’s footballing blueprint mirrored the coming together of multiple communities, which, in turn, helped to leave behind political and societal divisions felt in the past between its two regions, French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders. Individuals such as Vincent Kompany and Christian Benteke – both of Congolese origin – as well as Adnan Januzaj – of Balkan ancestry – have helped to defuse national conflicts, bringing a sense of greater purpose to the squad, while also showing the path to the top for younger talents with similar backgrounds.
With this latter point in mind, Belgium’s – and indeed Martinez’s – trump card for the World Cup may turn out to be Frenchman Henry. In spite of his lack of coaching credentials, his background underlines the logic for his appointment. He himself was part of a French national side that was considered a golden generation prior to winning anything, and which was anointed the ‘Black Blanc Beur’ moniker due to the fusion of players from contrasting cultural backgrounds. In addition to this and given the typical lack of contact time with national sides, the instant respect he commands and his knowledge of how to successfully navigate a tournament as a player will surely only serve to imbue his cohort with confidence.
Henry believes the team can make history, but all of this progress now awaits the elusive shot in the arm of a good tournament result to finally legitimise Belgium’s evolution and herald their arrival at international football’s top table.