UEFA will be the final confederation to commence World Cup qualifying when 22 matches kick off Europe’s participation in Brazil 2014 on Friday. But rather than discuss Spain’s chances of defending their title or Sir Bobby Charlton’s gloomy England forecast, folks seem to be obsessing with the hot new thing in international football these days: the young, talented and, according to La Dernière Heure, fantastically wealthy Belgium squad that will face Wales in Cardiff.
One of Belgium’s most prominent dailies, La Dernière Heure, or La DH, quite literally made headlines on Wednesday when it ran a photo of the Belgian national team—Les Diables (The Devils)—atop a banner that read, “Les Diables, 3e Équipe la Plus Chère Du Monde. (The Devils, 3rd most expensive team in the world.)”
The paper had tabulated the recent transfer fees commanded by members of Belgium’s squad and found that only Spain and Brazil eclipsed its €125 million “value”. Hyperbole, to be sure (La DH limited the scope of its arithmetic to summer 2012), but then again the euphoria surrounding this team, this “golden generation” of Belgian players, has been so all-encompassing that with only two days before the Wales match there just wasn’t a stone left to be turned over.
Many of the players are household names by now: Kompany, Vermaelen, Dembélé, Fellaini, Hazard. The English Premier League has lately been experiencing a particularly effective strain of Belgian fever. But the internationals who ply their trade on the continent are equally admired by their clubs and fans. Porto’s Steven Defour is a gifted midfield organizer; Timmy Simons is part of a defensive juggernaut at Nürnberg; Axel Witsel (who has an afro that rivals Fellaini’s) recently joined Zenit St. Petersburg for a whopping €40 million.
No matter who he picks from his 25-man squad, manager Marc Wilmots can be assured of having some of the game’s brightest young stars in his starting 11. That said, it’s precisely this sort of individualization that proved Belgium’s undoing in Euro 2012 qualifying, and it’s a problem that routinely left his predecessor, Georges Leekens, befuddled.
Look at the options in the midfield and attacking positions, for example. Belgium employ a 4-2-3-1 formation, and there are any number of combinations Wilmots can use in the six spots in front of the defense.
Witsel, who had a terrific season at Benfica last term, is one of the few players guaranteed a spot; Hazard and Dembélé are the others. That leaves Defour, Fellaini, Simons, Dries Mertens, Kevin De Bruyne and Kevin Mirallas vying for two places behind the lone striker, who can be any one of the versatile Mirallas, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke.
The selection conundrum was one Leekens was never able to master, and his sides were wildly inconsistent as a result. For every win over the United States or draw with France there would be a loss to Turkey or draw with Azerbaijan. On paper, Belgium should have at least progressed to the Euro 2012 qualification play-offs, but all those names and razzle-dazzle could never quite equate to fluency.
Wilmots has had three matches to work with the national team since Leekens resigned to take the top job at Club Brugge, and the progress has been tangible. Of course, the maturation of the “golden generation” has something to do with that, and in hindsight their disappointing Euro 2012 campaign may well have been a useful team-building exercise.
But there’s no understating a convincing 4-2 win over The Netherlands, and it’s on the back of that result that Belgium kick off their World Cup qualifying schedule against Wales.
Expectations, as La DH reminded us on Wednesday, are extraordinarily high. The heroes of the great Belgium teams of the early and mid-1980s continue to loom large. Claesen, Ceulemans, a European Championship final and World Cup semifinal are still the signposts that mark out the most successful period in the history of Belgian football. But it’s been 30 years since, and an entire generation has grown up without knowing Belgium as a force at international level.
Appropriately, it was the team photo from that August defeat of The Netherlands that graced the front page of La DH on Wednesday. And who knows, perhaps the team in that picture will be the signpost of Belgian football 30 years from now.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer