Just 14 years ago, Belgian football lay in the gutter and things looked set to somehow get worse. But the vision of a small few combined with sports science, unity and common sense helped them create one of the sport’s great stories.

Enough was enough. Michel Sablon wasn’t so much disappointed as concerned after his country were bumped out in the first round of Euro 2000. After all, mediocrity tends to let you know there’s little to look forward to well in advance. In doing so, Belgium became the first host to leave so early in the group era of the competition, not to mention the 16 World Cups it never happened at either, but the technical director of their football association wasn’t the only one shackled with such worry.

Shortly after a 2-0 defeat to Turkey saw them make that unwanted history, he took a call from then association president and current Fifa executive committee member Michel D’Hooghe. That brief conversation changed much of what we know about football and how we create footballers. “There’s something wrong here,” D’Hooghe stressed down the line. “Really wrong. That’s your job, you are technical director, it’s your turn to make a difference now and change this for the better.”

So, one of the more remarkable stories in the modern era of the sport began as Sablon returned to his office and took a sheet of paper from a desk drawer. With a remit to reform, he scribbled as a starting point and heading, <open itals> Belgian football is not good enough – it has to be made better <close itals>. Fourteen years later and the nation has the most expensive squad at the World Cup, are fifth favourites, and while winning it may be too much, too soon, anything less than a last-eight appearance will be a let-down. To think now that even some of Sablon’s colleagues scoffed with scepticism at the guide he wrote in the weeks, months and years that followed that moment.

“Granted, I never imagined it could be such a turnaround but the first thing was we were a little bit disappointed by the level of the Belgian football,” he recalls. “When you saw the younger teams, the under-17s and -18s and -19s, it was clear there was something fundamentally wrong. It was not only the results, but the quality of play and we knew we should do something about this. That was the reason we knew we had to change a lot of things in our football. In fact we changed everything.”

Sablon had been on the coaching staff of the national team at the 1986, ’90 and ’94 World Cups where even the run of semi-final, second round, second round didn’t do justice to their gritty competitiveness. But what changed thereafter was they didn’t. The best had moved on so he looked around at what the best looked like. To the south, France were pioneers in terms of the overhaul in physical education, youth academy programmes and coaching quality under the stewardship of Gerard Houllier, so Sablon sat down with him twice a year. Meanwhile to the north the Dutch were and still are the masters of individual development so he made sure to meet with them too.

“The aim was never to copy and just replicate but to look at playing style as a source of inspiration and within those styles we found a lot of valuable development topics,” he continues. “With this we worked hard with different people. The guy responsible for the national youth teams was Marc Van Geersom who was with me all the time and he had the same feeling about the state of our football philosophy. So too did Bob Browaeys. I remember us talking one time and we all thought if we don’t do something right now, in five or six years we’ll be at the bottom of the European rankings.”

“There was literally no vision at that time,” adds Browaeys whose lengthy job list now includes technical director of the Flemish half of the country, national youth coach at under-16, overseeing  technical topics at grassroots level and control of coach education at elite level. “We joined with universities here and recorded 1,500 youth games within the country and analysed the technical outcome in areas from player touches to style to formation to physical development. And the results were astonishing. So we put together different working groups and it took us more than two-and-a-half years with more than 70 people that were ready to work with us and find out what was wrong. They were experts in all parts of football. We had psychologists, contact with academics about physical development for example, we had experts like the coaches of all the first division clubs.”

To call what they agreed on evolution is an understatement. This was revolution, pure but not simple. Ask Sablon about the type of football he’d been involved with during his World Cup experiences and he’ll tell you it was “negative and defensive to the point of giving the ball away and waiting to counter”. Ask Sablon about the type of football that analysis showed they had to play in order to best develop young players and he’ll tell you 4-3-3 for reasons based on the science.

But it wasn’t just about formation either. It was a breakdown of what works for what ages and why, and how to move from one level to the next, all with the sole aim of producing the best adult. Alongside that, they had to destroy existing coach education courses and rebuild them with the same philosophy they developed for players. “We made different analysis of the competitions too and they weren’t in accordance with player expectation,” stresses Sablon. “One university analysed that, a second analysed the games and type of players, even under-sevens playing on a full pitch and how little they touched the ball. A third analysis was made on physical progression from five to 17.

“Those three analyses led us to our conclusions and we started to make a new system of progressing youth players. That’s why we began playing five-v-five until eight years old, then eight-v-eight until 12, and only from under-13 did we play full pitch. It was all based on specific data and science. And the context of this is year by year. We define what kids should learn and know at the end of each period. But some were very wary because I never saw this in my life before. We worked it out, the position of the ball, moving the ball, the mental, the physical and this was defined for every age.”

Additionally they made videos and distributed them to every club. It meant a coach in a lower division could see a player of eight, what should be done, and how the player would be at nine if they followed specific instructions. What helped too was what Browaeys calls the champagne effect. By allowing academy directors help influence initial direction, they were happy to bring the idea back to work with Belgium’s most gifted young players at the top sides. These were the places where other coaches would go to see what was cutting edge and so they brought the same with them too.

However if playing strength and tactical unity were crucial so too was a feature that seems more at home in American sports films than European soccer circles. As much as they wanted to create players, Belgium wanted to create people. This involved coaching coaches and then players in the mental aspect of the game. A winning mentality was needed no matter the skill level as were professional attitudes and education on decision-making. In this area Belgian mentors now give their players responsibility so it becomes about self-development and self-determination, as according to Browaeys the best coach is the player themselves and in youth teams there’s an emphasis on this.

“Our players, they start at the age of four or five in the club and it’s very important to let them free, let them play,” he continues as he runs through a brief version of how they develop players. “No coaching is allowed. It’s exploration and fun and they must find solutions themselves. Then we start with dribbling skills. This is very important. They must first learn how to dribble before they learn to pass because when you pass you are giving away the ball and you cannot improve your skills at that moment. So we are focussing on a lot of dribbling skills and shooting skills in a friendly environment that they enjoy. Only then do we start by short passing in a five-a-side. Then at eight-a-side.

“Then slowly at 12 or 13 we move to tactics and it has to be 4-3-3, flat four. Our research showed it is the best learning environment. When you are playing 4-4-2, there is more space and less skilful players are needed. In 4-3-3 you need to be skilful to find solutions to the problems it poses. It’s also very important to play in the triangles it offers, as well as lots of interesting passes and chances to be creative and to dribble. At the beginning it was difficult as in 2000 and 2001 we didn’t find the right profiles to fit this style of play but we started to develop players. Then we knew we were right.”

Creating a product you’re sure works is one thing. Selling is a completely different ordeal though. In fact that was “easily the hardest part” according to Sablon. And it was little wonder. Essentially they were asking every underage coach in the land to not only play a certain way, but to completely forget about victories. At over 200 meetings across the country, speaking to coaches about the plan, Sablon always said: “If you’ve an objective and aim to win the next game, stop with youth football, go fishing and enjoy yourself”.  Often there was a chuckle around the room and then a pause as it slowly filtered through that this influential and powerful man was completely serious.

That was the bottom-up side of execution; the top-down side provided just as many frowns. Sablon recalls one of the first underage games they employed 4-3-3 and lost 6-1. “And people even in the association were saying that’s dramatic and we were saying ‘No, we’ll take our time, you’ll see the improvement’. Four years later we were top 10 in Europe with under-17 and under-19 without this as an objective. It was the result of the work, but never the purpose of the work.”

They could easily have been top five but for their principles. In 2009, the under-17 team didn’t reach the European finals and didn’t play eligible players of the quality of Eden Hazard because he’d already been moved to under-19. “If he played once with the under-19s he never came back to the lower age,” notes Sablon. “We’ve a lot of examples of that. Once the player is capable of higher-level competition we push them.  We didn’t let him back down because he is progressing more in the higher-level team. If he was too strong below, he wasn’t learning anything.”

Meanwhile at the 2011 European under-19 Championships, a Belgian team believed to be one of the better sides couldn’t win a game and Browaeys puts this down to their refusal to change tactics because the ultimate goal was long-term and the senior side. “We lose games because we try to play difficult football and we are forcing our young players to make mistakes because they are learning. We want them to make new mistakes at underage so they learn new answers. That’s a major part of this at national level, at club level, at every level. The only goal is making the best senior player.”

“We started to realise we were doing that and doing things the right way after a little while,” adds Sablon. “I remember we played a four nations underage tournament which was us, Scotland from the British school of football, Italy from the south European school and Holland from the individual school. And that was the way we could test the players on the different types of football. We could measure what we were doing and measure our progress.”

All of this is a glimpse into what elite sport can be about. And it’s an education in what elite sport has to be about if it’s to work. The strange part is that any nation could do it if they could see past egos to unity, politics to planning and sweat to science. But even after producing Hazard and Courtois, Witsel and De Bruyne, Fellaini and Lukaku, Dembele and Januzaj, there are cynics pockmarking the football landscape. Indeed recently a mention of this model to a senior member within the Football Association of Ireland – a country on a par with Belgium back in the early 2000s but that has fallen into obscurity due to an underage system that has broken down – led to a one word reply. “Immigration.” It’s a point taken up by respected Belgian football writer Kristof Terreur.

“It’s the first time Belgium is really a multi-cultural society and the first time we’ve people from elsewhere coming into our national team and I think that’s a real help. And that’s a reason now why we are performing so well because all those guys when they were young were playing on the streets and the Belgian kids were on their computers by then. It’s combined with the youth system but the multiculturalism is a big thing. Granted, the Flemish-Walloon divide and how people from other backgrounds helped end this is in my eyes a little bit exaggerated. In 1986 when we went to a World Cup semi-final there was that divide. And now, we’ve a weekly reality TV show with the Belgian team and it shows they are all in harmony and that is exaggerated too. Of course there are rows.

“But the Belgians did a great thing, even if I don’t believe all teams followed their instructions,” continues Terreur. “Anderlecht were struggling for a long time but now they’ve a brilliant youth school. Most of the teams have new youth schools like Standard Liege where four or five of the top players came from, Racing Genk are the same. These clubs took responsibility. They saw they had to go and get all the talented guys from all over the country. That attitude of investing more in youth from the teams made a difference. Some clubs went abroad and took ideas home. Our association have done a lot of work too but I guess you need a bit of luck.”

The street football, Sablon agrees with to a point. After all, since his early days working with the association he was organising street football tournaments across the nation. The multi-cultural aspect he agrees on too. But what’s important to remember is that while luck is always a factor in such experiments, the system he and others helped devise and implement limits the place of chance. As much as is possible, they’ve taken control of the type of player they are producing. “And the real development of those players was in the clubs with a lot of specialist, follow-up individual training. And of course there was talent to start and this is a talented generation,” Sablon adds.

But there might be more to come as many Belgian clubs made a small fortune from the production lines their youth academies and the national philosophy created. Sablon says that when he started this programme, the county’s underage teams were being invited “to play Bulgaria and Romania but now we are being invited to play Spain every time, by Germany, and our young players compete with the best”. It’s not just at national level either, but at the top clubs and in the top club competitions. Just this season Youri Tielemans lined out in the Champions League at 16 years of age while Charly Musonda and Adnan Januzaj were representative of Belgium’s finest in that they were picked up by Chelsea and Manchester United in their mid-teens such was their potential.

These are the players following in the footsteps of other kids from the country. After all, Belgium’s World Cup squad has only one player over 30 and an average age of just 24, compared to England’s supposed inexperienced team which averages 26 while the likes of Brazil and the United States are close on four years older per player. “You can see the complete new style and type of player we have made,” suggests Browaeys. “Okay, you can say there’s a little bit of a golden generation about it but really there are a lot of talented players in the under-21, under-19, under-17 now. But it is very important, our national competition, we have a lot of youth playing and they have the opportunity to play at this age. The level is not so high in the Belgian competition so it’s a fantastic competition for our youth development. The smaller countries must take advantage of that.

“I compare that to the Premier League and I think there is a problem for talented young players of England because the step is too big to the first team of Chelsea or Manchester City. It’s very important the country has a good development system as it means the last step, the transition step to becoming a good professional player, is there. It means from the age of 17 to 19 or 20, it’s very important you give players the right learning environment. There’s no player who can learn to be a footballer sitting on the bench. So they must play at the right level at that age.”

But where once they were the future, Browaeys admits that a key part is staying ahead. “The last six years it was very important to analyse international trends. We analysed for instance Spain-Germany in 2008, we looked at certain types of runs. There was also the Barcelona playing style and it’s very important now you watch good players and try and predict the future. So when you are working now with 15 year old boys, you have to try to develop them for five or six years’ time. And how football will be played in 2020, it’s very difficult to predict. There’s only one or two teams playing the most progressive football, it was Barcelona, now Bayern Munich, so it was very important to analyse World Cups and Champions Leagues and we are very influenced by the Spanish playing style.”

But for June and for Sablon, he’s just concerned with the present and just how much of an impact his experiment can make on the World Cup. “There’s already an excitement in Belgium. That wasn’t there in 2000. It’s strange to think back and to remember writing on that sheet of paper for the first time that we needed to improve our football. Sometimes how well it’s worked seems a dream.”

Abridged version
17 June, 2014
Irish Examiner


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