The new Belgian golden generation
If anyone had said at the beginning of this season that an unknown Belgian defender's move from Ajax to Arsenal would be one of the best signings in the Premier League, they would probably have been laughed at. Yet Thomas Vermaelen soon proved his worth, adding steel to the Arsenal defence and chipping in with some good goals.
Arsene Wenger has earned a big reputation as a talent spotter, but Vermaelen's switch came as a shock to many even in Belgium. Those who knew the player acknowledged straight away that it would turn out to be a success. Vermaelen, nicknamed 'The Verminator', could well be seen as Arsenal's outstanding performer for much of the season, along with Cesc Fabregas.
A year earlier, David Moyes had seemingly gone out on a limb when he signed another Belgian. Hardly any fans outside Belgium knew much about Marouane Fellaini before he went to Everton. He took a couple of months to adapt to English football, but the fans swiftly started to fear that Everton could only be a stepping stone for the tall, classy midfielder with the distinctive afro. Not much later, Fellaini wigs were spotted all around Liverpool as the young Belgian became a cult figure among the Everton faithful.
Along with Vincent Kompany and, recently, young Dedryck Boyata at Manchester City, Vermaelen and Fellaini are just the tip of an iceberg of Belgian talent coming through the ranks these days. Many other Belgians may very well become household names in the years to come.
Manchester United recently signed 18-year-old Marnick Vermijl, a full back described by Sir Alex Ferguson himself as the best young full back, left or right, he had seen in years. Vermijl joins 21-year-old Ritchie De Laet at Old Trafford.
Arsene Wenger has spoken of his admiration for Eden Hazard, the 19-year-old Lille starlet who has dazzled with his skills over the last two seasons, winning the young player award in France last season. This week, he claimed the player of the month gong for March. Zinedine Zidane has even tipped him to become one of the biggest stars of the coming decades.
Spanish newspaper AS reports that Jan Vertonghen of Ajax and Standard's Steven Defour are being monitored by Real Madrid and Barcelona. Defour's team-mates at Standard include Axel Witsel and Mehdi Carcela, who are both amazing talents. Everton and Saint-Etienne have watched young Kevin De Bruyne, a hot prospect at Racing Genk. Anderlecht's top scorer for this season, Romelu Lukaku, has scored 15 goals in 28 league matches along with four goals in the Europa League. He turns 17 in May. Unsurprisingly, several big European clubs are in the queue for his signature.
"Could the young stars of Belgium prove dark horses for Brazil 2014?" was the question asked recently by Times columnist Gabriele Marcotti, who went on to say that Belgium's selection is by far the strongest since the semi-finalists of 1986. He points out that most of these young players have held first-team places since the ages of 17 and 18 and that this experience, combined with raw talent, could well pay off.
So where did this abundance of talent come from? Belgium probably always had good players, but the major difference is that, lately, they have had the courage and confidence to go to bigger clubs. Belgian players hardly ever used to go any further than the Netherlands. There is an innate sense of inferiority in Belgian minds that prevents them from advertising - or having great belief in - their qualities. Success is almost suspicious. The difference with the neighbouring Netherlands could not be greater. Perfect example: while Belgium makes the world's best beer, the whole world drinks Heineken.
Defenders Vincent Kompany and Daniel van Buyten were the first Belgians since Enzo Scifo to move to big European clubs and achieve any level of success. Van Buyten captained Hamburg before moving on to Bayern. Kompany followed Van Buyten to Hamburg before heading to Manchester City, where he established himself as one of the best defenders in the league, occasionally captaining the richest club in the world.
And another sport has shown that it is perfectly possible, and even socially acceptable, to be Belgian and successful. Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin may well have had an effect outside tennis when they were the best in the world for a long spell. It was suddenly okay to be ambitious, to believe in your own talent and to try to make the most of it.
Of course, a change in attitude alone does not explain the upsurge. Many of these players were formed at big clubs. Belgium always had good youth teams but the transition to the first team was problematic. Anderlecht and Standard are exceptions, usually bringing their younger players through successfully. Van Buyten, Witsel, Defour, Carcela and Fellaini are all products of the Standard academy, while Kompany and Lukaku started their young careers at Anderlecht. Then there are those who went abroad for their formation. Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen went to Ajax as youngsters, Kevin Mirallas and Eden Hazard to Lille. Clubs in the Netherlands and France, of course, have a tradition of giving youngsters time and gradually preparing them for the big league.
Another important factor, and one that casts minds back to the 'international' French side so prominent at the turn of the century, is the diverse cultural background these players have. Belgium is multi-cultured and this is reflected in this young group. Their roots can be traced back to Morocco (Fellaini, Carcela), Spain (Miralas, Carcela), Mali (Dembele) and Congo (Lukaku) among others. And no one is to say with any certainty that this generation of Belgian players could not be as good as that France team.
All these players are between 16 and 22 - a long way from their prime. Their potential, combined with the tactical nous of national coach Dick Advocaat and the experience of 'old heads' Kompany, goalkeeper Logan Bailly and captain Vermaelen, is positively frightening.
Belgium's hottest fries, in alphabetical order:
1. Steven Defour, Standard, midfielder, born 1988. Captained Standard at 20, guiding them to two consecutive Belgian titles. Often compared to Enzo Scifo due to his remarkable technique and vision. Liverpool scouted him in 2009, eventually signing Aquilani for a lot more money. A move they may come to regret.
2. Eden Hazard, Lille, attacking midfielder/winger, born 1991. "Faster than Zidane, more technique than Henry. Custom-made for Real Madrid," former France international Christophe Dugarry said. Hazard is possibly the outstanding talent in Europe right now.
3. Romelu Lukaku, Anderlecht, striker, born 1993. Often compared to Didier Drogba, Lukaku holds a first team place at 16, where Drogba only really surfaced at 24. Fast, strong and incredibly efficient in front of goal, Lukaku is surely destined for Europe's top leagues.
4. Marnick Vermijl, Manchester United, full back, born 1992. If Sir Alex says you are the best full back of your age and signs you up at 18, you must be doing something right. Has not broken onto the scene yet, but definitely one to watch.
5. Jan Vertonghen, Ajax, midfielder, born 1987. Real Madrid reportedly watched him last summer and maybe he was what they missed this season. Brilliant at linking defence to attack, with great vision and an enormous passing range. Could prove the Belgian answer to Claude Makelele and Patrick Viera.
Personal favourite: Axel Witsel, Standard, midfielder, born 1989. A horror tackle sadly saw Witsel conquer YouTube for all the wrong reasons but he has shown great maturity in coming back with some outstanding performances for Standard. Classy, fast and intelligent. Witsel is a joy to watch when on form.