Belgium to the future

Mid-week provided the last chance for the International teams to get together until next month’s European Championship Qualifiers. Youth has been the target of many nations; with Euro 2012 getting ever closer they are using the friendlies to blend in the young hopefuls and give them a chance to prove their capability.

Take England for instance, Arsenal’s  Jack Wilshere made his full senior debut in Copenhagen on Wednesday night as Fabio Capello led his side to a 2-1 victory over Denmark, and although being substituted at half-time, he demonstrated with his crisp passing and assertiveness why he’s already been touted as a future England star.

Likewise 21-year-old Javier Pastore, who broke into the Argentina senior set-up two years ago, played an inspiring role as he came off the bench in his countries 2-1 defeat of Portugal in mid-week and the Palermo man almost claimed his first goal, only being denied by the post.

However there’s one country where a group of youngsters have shone through at the same time – Belgium. No, I’m not joking, the nation which is more famous for its buns than its football team is ranked 57th in the world (below the likes of Iran and Venezuela and one place above Iraq!) However they’re now entering their most exciting period in football since the 1980’s.

Belgian supporters would be forgiven for their frustration as they have only featured once in the Euro Championships since 1984 and even when they did (2000) it was because they were co-hosts. The last major tournament they qualified for was nearly 10 years ago where they reached the last 16 of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan but they still lacked the top quality players that perhaps they’re now gifted with.

I’ve been raving about the prospect of this national team for a while now, and although they currently sit fourth in Group A of their Euro 2012 qualification group and could only manage a 1-1 draw with Finland on Wednesday, it’s the next major championship that I predict they may upset the odds.

All teams need time to gel, and by the time the qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil comes around the side will have had a similar line-up for nearly five years, added to the fact that most of the players will be reaching their prime, it promises to be an exhilarating period in the Belgium set up.

But who are these players that are causing such a fuss?

Starting at the back, there’s Ajax defender Toby Alderweireld. At the age of just 21, he’s become a regular at the Amsterdam Arena slotting in at centre-back, and played a pivotal role as his team narrowly missed out on the Eredivisie title by one point last season, he furthered his credentials  and gained more admirers by being named the “Ajax Talent of the Year” in 2010.

Alongside Alderweireld in defence are established Premier League stars – 25-year-old Thomas Vermaelen of Arsenal and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany who is 24. Although regularly featuring for two of the top sides in English football, some fans forget that they’re not exactly seasoned professionals, and this solid partnership will be the core of Belgium’s defence for many years to come.

Yet it’s in midfield where this ‘golden generation’ really takes effect.

Premier League fans will already know of Marouane Fellaini’s ability having been at Everton since 2008. Nevertheless they might not be aware of his fellow midfielders, who are arguably better prospects.

Axel Witsel, who plays for top Belgian side Standard Liege, has only just turned 22, yet he’s been receiving impressive reviews from across Europe. Although he did spark controversy after breaking Marcin Wasilewski’s leg in a ‘horror’ tackle when his side met Anderlecht in a league fixture and was subsequently banned for eight matches. There’s been nothing more to suggest that he’s a malicious player though and his footballing ability has proven that.

Manchester United fans might well be familiar with the name Steven Defour; the midfielder has been mentioned in the rumour columns countless times over the past year with a move to Old Trafford and Sir Alex Ferguson even sent the player a ‘Get well soon’ letter wishing him all the best in his recovery after he broke his right foot in 2009. Defour is the current captain for Standard Liege and has led his side back into the Champions League in recent years. The 22-year-old who can play as an attacking or defensive midfielder has the leadership qualities to go on and become a successful skipper for his nation not to mention his impressive passing ability.

Another player whose efforts haven’t gone unnoticed is Ajax’s Jan Vertonghen. He’s been linked with a move to AC Milan and Arsenal to team up with his fellow countryman Vermaelen. The 23-year-old can play as a holding midfielder or his role at Ajax – as a centre-back.

The Belgian’s aren’t too shabby upfront either; Eden Hazard who can play just behind the strikers, was nominated for the 2010 Player of the Year Award in France’s Ligue 1 while playing for Lille, although he didn’t win, he was crowned the Young Player of the Year for the second consecutive season in France – the first ever player to do so since the award’s inception in 1994. Having turned 20 last month, the player has bags full of potential and has already been heavily rumoured for a move away from Lille.

Perhaps the most exciting talent of all though is 17-year-old Anderlecht striker Romelu Lukaku.

One thing that sets him apart from others of his age (apart from his incredible talent) is his unbelievable strength.  Already with a body of a man, he’s not short on admirers – Real Madrid boss José Mourinho has documented his interest, and Cristiano Ronaldo described him as a “fantastic player”. As well as being heavily linked with a move to the Bernabeu, Premier League clubs, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United have also been keen on the striker. He made his club debut as a 16-year-old and finished last season as the Belgian League’s  top goalscorer as he netted 15 times to help Anderlecht to the title. He’s showed no signs of his development slowing either as this season he’s been on the scoresheet 10 times in the league and netted four in the Europa League. He made his international debut in March last year and followed this by scoring both goals in a 2-0 friendly win over Russia. His club boss has already conceded that “Romelu will have to move because of his incredible talent”, with the Premier League or La Liga being the most likely destination.

One player who has possibly highlighted the prospect of the Belgium national team is striker Nacer Chadli. The FC Twente striker has a dual Moroccan/Belgian citizenship, and having already played for Morocco in a non-competitive friendly match, has now decided to switch back to his native Belgium – possibly because he thinks they’re on the brink of something special.

Andy Maynard

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