When Belgium slumped to a 2-1 defeat to eventual winners in the quarter-finals of Euro 2020, it appeared as though the country’s so-called “Golden Generation” had reached something of a watershed moment.
While it becomes increasingly unlikely that the world’s top-ranked team will fulfil its potential by winning a major international tournament, it cannot be denied that the recent Belgian success has been inspired by significant changes to the underlying grassroots system.
But how has this changed over the years, and how exactly did Belgium become one of the world’s best sides?
Addressing Belgium’s Cultural Revolution in the Noughties
Throughout the 1990s, Belgian league sides and the national team tended to play quite rigid 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 systems, often utilising concepts such as a sweeper and individual marking that had been highly popular throughout the 80s and previously.
Such tactics were also inherently negative and built on a culture of compact defence and counter-attacking, which sent various national sides into major tournaments focused on survival and countering sides of all shapes and sizes.
This came to a head in the 1998 World Cup, when a talented Belgian side that included star performers such as Luc Nilis, Marc Wilmots, Luis Oliveira and legendary skipper Enzo Scifo went out at the group stages and failed to win a single game.
According to lead coach Bob Browaeys, Belgian football was being undermined by individualism and a lack of any unified vision on youth, before recommending a meeting between 30 federation countries nationwide to discuss radical changes in approach.
This spawned a comprehensive and revolutionary change, which focused on key observations and takeaways from the national and grassroots setups in France and the neighbouring Netherlands. Belgian authorities also drew insight from clubs including Ajax and Barcelona, in order to determine how to proceed going forward.
It was subsequently determined that every Belgian youth side would play a compact 4-3-3 system, which would provide a superior learning environment for players and place a far greater emphasis on the development of technical and tactical skills.
More specifically, grassroots football in Belgium sought to focus on the freedom of expression for young players and the cultivation of dribbling and passing skills, while prioritising the classic duel (or 1v1) individual battles on the pitch.
The Last Word – How Belgium Became a Big Player on the World Stage
Ultimately, it has taken a while for these changes to take hold, while they weren’t enough initially to prevent young talent such as Eden Hazard from moving overseas to seek out adequate training and coaching facilities.
However, they have undoubtedly helped to cultivate Belgium’s golden generation of the last decade, which is characterised by star performers like Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden’s brother Thorgan Hazard.
Despite this generation’s lack of tangible success, their consistency and emergence as the world’s top ranked nation is incredible for such a small country, which has a relatively tiny population of 11 million and just 34 professional football clubs competing across two leagues.
The question that remains is can Belgium’s grassroots system and current crop of stars actually win a piece of international silverware, especially in the wake of the Euros and even more recent failure in the semi-finals of the Nations League?
We’ll surely find out during the 2022 World Cup in Dubai, which may provide one of the last chances for Belgium’s golden generation to win a major tournament.