Belgium kick off their World Cup against Algeria on Tuesday with expectations as high as they've ever been. Many bookmakers have them as the fifth-favorite team to win it all. That sounds remarkable for a nation that hasn't qualified for a World Cup or European Championship since 2002.
But the reality is that in sheer numbers of talented individuals, Belgium really are among the world's elite right now. They are a rung below Spain, Germany, Argentina and Brazil, perhaps, yet arguably better or equal to anyone else you care to mention.
In their ranks you'll find the following:
- The captain of the Premier League champions (Vincent Kompany)
- A center forward who scored 32 goals in the English top flight in the past two years despite turning 21 only last month (Romelu Lukaku)
- An attacking midfielder who, at 23, already has a slew of individual awards: twice player of the year in France, three times young player of the year -- twice in France, once in England -- and Chelsea's current player of the year (Eden Hazard)
- The best goalkeeper in La Liga, and possibly in Europe, who took his team to within one game of a historic double with Atletico Madrid (Thibaut Courtois)
- Manchester United's biggest signing last summer (Marouane Fellaini)
- A central defender who was Arsenal's club captain and is reportedly close to a move to Old Trafford (Thomas Vermaelen)
- Another central defender who skippered Ajax and could soon captain Tottenham (Jan Vertonghen)
- A central midfielder who moved to Zenit St. Petersburg for a whopping $50 million two summers ago (Axel Witsel)
- One of the most prolific wingers in Serie A (Dries Mertens)
- Another attacking midfielder who switched clubs for $30 million-plus last year (Kevin de Bruyne)
By recent Belgian standards, we're talking 1927 Yankees here. Which is why so many have been looking for the "magic formula": some kind of innovation or shift to explain this astounding production line of talent.
A story from Grantland throws up a whole bunch of them. This other one, by Belgian football expert John Chapman, goes a bit more granular and concludes there is no one reason. It just sort of happened: talent spontaneously generating from a primal soup of factors, but certainly not by design.
Folks I've talked to -- among them scouts, journalists and guys at the Belgian FA -- tend to lean toward the latter theory, and you can see why. Because not one of the theories out there is really satisfying on its own. In fact, you can deconstruct the more popular ones.
1. Belgium tapped into a rich cultural and ethnic tapestry offering a diversity of styles, much like France in 1998 or Germany in 2010.
It's true that demographic shifts can help to some degree, but Belgium has been hugely diverse for a long, long time. (There's a reason the national anthem is in three languages). And they were diverse during the team's sterile decade of the 2000s as well.
2. Innovative training and youth development techniques.
Anderlecht players, for example, aren't allowed to tackle until the under-21 level. Former technical director Michel Sablon introduced standards that emphasized development over results at youth level.
It's a nice idea and it's true that Belgium have improved tremendously at the youth level in recent years, but Sablon's innovations did not take root until 2007. By that point, 20 of the 23 players in the Belgian squad were already playing professionally or had moved abroad. What's more, every youth coach in the universe says he emphasizes development over results. Every single one.
3. Some of Belgium's best players came through the youth ranks elsewhere or moved abroad early in their pro careers, getting experience at a higher level and the benefit of excellent coaching.
This one's true statistically: 11 of the 23 moved abroad before their 20th birthday. Indeed, Tobias Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Vermaelen (Ajax) and Nacer Chadli (Maastricht) actually played a chunk of their youth football in Holland, while Hazard and Divock Origi (Lille) opted for France and Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United) chose England.
Playing in other countries no doubt helped each of these players. But there's a clear chicken-and-egg problem. Did these guys move because they were good? Or did they become good because they moved? Fact is, their footballing education began as pre-teens and, in all cases, it happened in Belgium.
4. The game is cyclical.
Belgium may be a small nation, but they already had a golden generation in the 1980s with the likes of Jan Ceulemans, Enzo Scifo and Eric Gerets. In fact, they reached the final of the 1980 European Championship and the semifinal of the 1986 World Cup. They had some barren years, but this is mere regression to the mean.
It's true that treating Belgium as some kind of football desert suddenly turned into a fertile greenhouse of talent is foolish. There is a long and proud history there. But it's equally true that simply claiming things are cyclical doesn't explain it. After all, if it was merely about cycles, then why are Hungary still waiting for the glory bus to return 60 years after dominating the European game?
All of the above, no doubt, contributed to some degree. But to think that you can implement any of the first three points (you can't really implement point four, other than by sitting on your hands for a few decades) and get Belgium's results is silly. And yet that, no doubt, won't stop folks from studying the "Belgian model" to death and trying to replicate it elsewhere.
It's classic "nature vs. nurture" stuff. You can lay the groundwork to identify the best talents and ensure they get the best possible education. But you still need the chromosomes to do their thing. If genes didn't come into it, there would a dozen Hazards, Courtois and Lukakus. Instead there's just one of each.
Just don't call it luck. Belgian fans suffered through enough lean years. If there is a spot of good fortune involved, they've certainly earned it.