The current Belgian national team continues to achieve unprecedented success for their country on the international football landscape. Belgium qualified first in their group for the 2014 World Cup (without any losses), which led bookkeepers to list the Red Devils as the dark horse favorite to win the tournament. During the 2014 World Cup, with the youngest starting eleven in the field, the Belgians reached the quarter-finals for only the second time ever. The estimated market value of the likely Belgian starting lineup for EURO 2016 totals a staggering $394M. Six months ago, Belgium topped the FIFA World Rankings for the first time in its history. Six years ago, Belgium ranked 66th.
Belgium’s emergence as one of the strongest nations in world football has exceeded all expectations. How has Belgium, an unremarkable country with a population of only 11M and just 34 professional clubs, produced this golden generation of footballers? What drove the Belgian football renaissance?
Enter Michel Sablon, the longtime technical director of the Belgian FA. Upon his appointment in 2001, Sablon, a former assistant coach for the national team, transformed the Belgian football system.
Investment into Coaching and Training Facilities
Sablon first began a new push to invest into new coaching expansion, more robust youth training programs, and state-of-the-art facilities. Although the Red Devils crashed out of EURO 2000 in the group stages, because they co-hosted the tournament, Belgium made a significant profit from the tournament. Sablon used the capital in a variety of ways to aid youth development. The federation built a new national football center on the outskirts of Brussels, started offering its entry-level coaching course for free, and hired a firm to audit all the youth systems at the club level and make recommendations. In later years, Belgian youth academies continued to invest in superior training infrastructure following the influx of capital through the sales of their top footballing prospects.
Furthermore, the federation launched a joint initiative with the government, which led to the introduction of eight new talent schools between 1998 and 2002. These sessions provided selected Belgian footballing prospects twice as much coaching and training to increase their chances to reach the top. Through these programs, the federation exerted a direct influence on the development of the country’s elite players.
The Louvain Report
Shortly after his appointment, Sablon began convening town hall-style meetings with groups of academy directors and coaches from various levels of Belgian football to discuss formations and training methods. On the heels of two group stage exits from the 1998 World Cup and EURO 2000, all agreed that Belgium football had “no unified vision on youth” and that a fundamental transformation of the system was required. But no consensus could be reached on how to facilitate change.
In response, Sablon commissioned the University of Louvain to carry out an extensive study on youth football in Belgium, which involved filming 1,500 matches across different age groups. The report presented numerous findings that became the foundation of Sablon’s blueprint for Belgian football.
Once the study was concluded, Sablon traveled across the country, presenting the university’s findings to hundreds of Belgian football officials and coaches from all levels of the game. The Louvain Report was the turning point in convincing the Belgian football academy directors to follow Sablon’s direction.
One key conclusion from the report was the Belgian youth’s system’s overemphasis on winning rather than on player development. To correct this problem, Sablon eliminated U7 and U8 league tables in order to shift its focus away from rankings and better stimulate individual player growth. Furthermore, Belgian stopped allowing its best footballing prospects from jumping between national teams. For example, if a 21-year-old winger were capped on the Belgian national team, the Belgian FA would prohibit the footballer from “going back down” to the Belgian U21 team for a game. This protocol was implemented to facilitate the comprehensive, linear progression of a player’s ability. Additionally, the Belgian FA began the process of implementing small-sided games, which the report observed better encouraged dribbling and diagonal passing skills that Belgian coaches desired.
Building upon his discussions with Belgian coaches and academy directors and the release of the Louvain Report, Sublon trekked to the best training centers in France, Holland, and Germany to find a new Belgian footballing ethos. In 2004, the Belgian FA unveiled their master plan G-A-G. The new comprehensive playing style fused fused the French’s emphasis physical power and efficiency with the Dutch’s sublime technique to create a novel brand of exciting, attacking brand of Belgian football.
How is G-A-G actually utilized? Through the standardization of tactics and formations across Belgium. Inspired by his research trips and his discussions with colleagues, Sablon told every youth team to play a fluid and flexible 4-3-3 formation. Today, nearly every Belgian squad, from the national team to the youth academies down to a local village team, plays the same 4-3-3 formation. Using only half the pitch, the Belgian FA required U9s to play 5-on-5 and U11s to play 8-on-8 throughout the country. At age 12, the full-size pitch is introduced.
The G-A-G philosophy revolutionized how Belgians play the game of football. Gone are the days of Belgium, the defensive, opportunistic, and scrappy team with no identity. Belgian wingers now express creativity and flair through superb dribbling and footwork. The average Belgian midfielder often moves box-to-box with strength and technical poise. Finally, youth Belgian defenders are now synonymous with intelligence, spatial awareness, and the ability to anticipate and thwart.
Sablon’s tireless work began to bear fruit at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when a core of teenagers dragged Belgium into the semifinals. That same contingency continues to work together for the Red Devils. With the promotion of assistant head coach Marc Wilmots in 2013, the Belgians have shown the passion and skill to compete with the best across the world. Today, an astonishing 16 players reside in the English Premier League.
By Nick Salzman, Sam Skinner, and Will Feldman
How to Cite this Article: “Rise of the Red Devils” Written by Nick Salzman, Will Feldman, and Sam Skinner (2016), European Cup 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/tournament-guides/european-cup-2016-guide/belgium/rise-of-the-red-devils/(accessed on (date)).