Can Belgium become a world-beater?
Charles de Gaulle once called Belgium, a country essentially made up of leftover scraps from other countries, an "aberration of history." Within that aberration, there's another, even more unlikely anomaly unfurling these days. Despite numbering only 11 million, living in a nation roughly the size of Maryland and not having a particularly noteworthy track record in producing world-class soccer players, the Belgians have somehow produced what amounts to a near monopoly on tomorrow's superstars.
An improbable assortment of potential world-beaters has bubbled up from all across the land, flooding the international market for soccer talent. They are led by French champion Lille's 20-year-old winger Eden Hazard, the defending French league player of the year. "Hazard is the greatest Belgian talent," Belgium and Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini told Belgian television in June. "He has everything necessary to become great. It would be stupid not to take advantage of that."
In Hazard's wake, Belgium's talent pool features attackers Romelu Lukaku (age 18, Chelsea), Moussa Dembele (24, Fulham), Nacer Chadli (21, FC Twente), and Jelle Vossen (22, Genk); midfielders Axel Witsel (22, Benfica), Steven Defour (23, Porto), Dries Mertens (24, PSV), Mats Rits (18, Ajax), and Kevin de Bruyne (23, Genk); defenders Vincent Kompany (25, Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (24, Ajax), Thomas Vermaelen (25, Arsenal), and Toby Alderweireld (22, Ajax); and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (19, Chelsea -- on loan to Atletico Madrid) as well as the aforementioned Fellaini (23).
But before you pencil Belgium in for world domination at the next World Cup, take note of Fellaini's choice of words: "Stupid not to take advantage." Belgium's golden generation, highlighted by Hazard and Lukaku, may be highly gifted, but whether it will ever collectively put all that talent to good use for its country is very much in doubt.
The cornerstones of this Belgian side have hinted at their capacity for greatness at the 2008 Beijing Olympics by unsettling a stacked Brazil side in the opening game and knocking out Italy to reach the final four. And confidence has soared. Head coach Georges Leekens said in 2010 that Belgium "will be at least as good as the Netherlands" by the next World Cup. Last March, former Belgium standout forward Luc Nilis told a Belgian newspaper that "there's a 100 percent certainty we'll make it to the 2014 World Cup." Belgium has since been drawn into a tough qualifying group with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia and Wales. In another tricky qualifying group for Euro 2012, Belgium put a big dent in its chances by drawing 1-1 away to Azerbaijan on Friday, however, and now sits in third place with 12 points after eight of 10 games. The team is one point behind second-place Turkey, but the Turks do have a game in hand in the battle for the qualifying playoff spot behind group winner Germany.
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In Belgium, things are never as simple as putting a talented group of players together and giving them time to gel. As the Diables Rouges -- the Red Devils -- have transitioned from a weak generation that interrupted the team's streak of qualifying for six straight World Cups through 2002, the new generation has clashed with its predecessors, breeding considerable animosity that has spilled out into the press. In 2010, the team's medical staff quit in unison over the new generation's diva-ish behavior, claiming it was frequently asked to vouch for made-up injuries so that players could go out instead of practicing.
The team plays within the parameters of a hapless federation. It has made poor choices for national team coach in the past, failed to get every game broadcasted on national television and once played the Slovakian national anthem before a game with Slovenia (the proper anthem was played during half time).
Wedged between the French and Dutch, the Belgians are a self-deprecating and largely unpatriotic people, who identify more with their region or province than the country itself. This has fostered a climate of athletic disinterest. One of the few things all Belgians can agree on is that they have traditionally not cared much about the national team. The federation has made considerable attempts at rekindling the sentiments of the 1980s, when Belgium reached the final of the 1980 Euro tournament and the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup, through an expensive marketing campaign trotting out the heroes of yore. But stadiums remain half-full for Belgium games. The federation even saw itself forced to make people buying tickets for the Belgium sections -- which inevitably serve as de-facto overflow for the sold-out away stands -- sign contracts that they will root for Belgium. Telling for the confusion and enmity among the mostly French- and Dutch-speakers is that those few who do turn out for the national team do not cheer their team on with chants of "Belgique" or "BelgiŽ" but "Belgium," opting for the neutral English.
For decades, rumors have swirled that there's a quota system in place demanding that coaches strike a certain balance between call-ups from the rival Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloon factions that make up the country along with a small German-speaking minority.
Therein the national team reflects Belgium as a whole, at least. The Belgian provinces bounced around between different kingdoms and empires for centuries before the Flemish and Walloon regions managed to gain independence from the Netherlands in 1830 and were lumped together as a new country (the German bit wasn't added until after World War I as reparation for the horrors). But in recent years, the make-shift nation has teetered perilously on the brink of dissolution as it has failed to form a fully functional government since elections took place in 2007. The Flemish and Walloons don't get along anymore, as the economic balance of power has shifted to the Flemish while the Walloons insist on retaining their power. Which is all to say there might not be a Belgian national team by the time all that talent comes to a full bloom, instead carving it up into two or three teams. Flemish separatists have already called for Flanders to field its own "national" team.
In the interim, Belgium has started playing good soccer. Under Leekens, the team has sported a disciplined yet adventurous 4-3-3 formation that maximizes its many weapons, even if it is still liable to big lapses defensively. This is rather a turnaround from Leekens' predecessor Rene Vandereycken, who was in charge from 2006 to April 2009, when he was replaced by a caretaker and then Dick Advocaat, who was poached by Russia six months later. Under Vandereycken, Belgium played the stodgy defensive brand of soccer it always has, but that is incompatible with the new generation. "We don't decide to play an attacking game," explained Kompany to a Belgian paper in March. "It's just in our genes."
Leekens has already seen his contract renewed through the 2014 World Cup. "This group has a lot of talent, but we need to get away from that alone," he told Belgian television in March. "To get results, we need character, the right mindset, cunningness and intelligence, too."
Belgium has made a start of putting those elements together. Of late, the Belgian public has even started to take note, however skeptically. "We've gotten the public interested in the Red Devils again and we mean something again," Leekens said. "We're the petits Belges [little Belgians] but we're getting bigger and bigger."
For Belgium's embarrassment of riches to avoid plain embarrassment, however, they'll have to heed their national creed -- "Strength through unity" -- at long last.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.