The Belgian national football team used to compete with the giants of the footballing world and had its golden years between 1982 and 2002. They even finished 4th in Mexico in 1986, but it all came crushing down in the new millennia.
Franky Vercauteren and Enzo Scifo were the legends of Belgium national team, but even younger generation of players like Marc Wilmots and Gert Verheyen stopped playing for the national team after the 2002 World Cup.
In the second round of that competition Belgium had to play against eventual champions Brazil. To the surprise of the Brazilians themselves, referee disallowed a headed goal by Marc Wilmots that would have given Belgium a 0:1 lead, after a “phantom foul” on Roque Júnior and Belgium lost with 2:0.
That year marked an end of an era and Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2004, or even the World Cup in 2006 for the first time since 1978. Belgium was failing to create a strong national team and was ranked to an all-time low 71st position in the FIFA World Rankings in June 2007. They failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and 2012 … and the World Cup in 2010.
4-3-3 for the creation of the new talents
The reason for degradation of once great national team was that their best young players were heading to France and the Netherlands and that Jupiter pro league was no longer a place where young players could develop and grow. One man, the technical director of the Belgian Football Association and former coaching team member at the World Cup finals in Mexico, Italy and the United States, Michel Sablon, decided that it is a time to act.
He simply wrote a book for clubs, national teams and coaches of the schools with one, not entirely unique vision. Sablon asked everyone to play in 4-3-3 formation with wingers and three midfielders and a flat back four in the U-18 selections. The coaches and clubs needed up to six years to adopt this style of play, because they only cared about winning the match and playing with three defenders, the formation they were used to.
Rise of Hazard, Benteke, Fellaini, Kompany …
So why did big clubs start to listen? Sablon’s team filmed and analysed 1,500 youth games, deducted that winning at all costs is over-rated, so the FA imposed five against five games for the youngest players, seven against seven for older and delayed the eleven against eleven matches on a full pitch.
Youth national teams were accepting even much younger talented players regardless of the chances of qualification for the different competitions and a miracle happened. Eden Hazard and Christian Benteke were in a team that played in the semi-finals of the U-17 Euro in 2007, and in 2008 Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany played amazingly in the Olympics and were 4th at the end.
A dark horse is collecting victories in Brazil
Former assistant manager Marc Wilmots replaced Georges Leekens and under his reign, the team improved, rising to an all-time high of fifth on the FIFA World Rankings in October 2013. Belgium suddenly had a potential to create chances, mainly with attackers Mirallas, Benteke and Lukaku, as well as midfielders Fellaini, Witsel, Dembélé, De Bruyne and Hazard. We just can’t skip the solid defence with players such as Kompany, Vermaelen, Alderweireld and Vertonghen as well as the goalkeepers Courtois and Mignolet.
Belgium confidently grabbed four victories in Brazil. They won against Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group stage of the competition, scored twice against the United States and amazing Tim Howard in the round of 16 and will face Argentina in just a couple of days.
What about the chances for the final victory? Well, it is not likely that we will see Belgium national team playing in Rio in a final match, but even the Belgians don’t really care. They just reached their first quarter-finals since 1986 and an almost forgotten golden era, all thanks to one man – Michel Sablon.