US Can Learn From Its Football Vanquisher, Belgium

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/02/2014 03:04:00 PM
US never really had a chance...but Belgium can teach it a trick or three.
Ho-hum, another World Cup, another early US demise--this time in the first knockout round. Despite having the finest hired gun available as manager, legendary German striker-turned-SoCal-resident Jurgen Klinsmann, the US Men's National Team (USMNT) did not really do enough to overcome a Belgian side many experts believe can go all the way. Actually, the United States should study Belgium if it ever tires of getting dumped out of the World Cup with regularity. Belgium, like the United States, is hardly regarded as a footballing powerhouse. It is a tiny nation of 11 million persons, limiting its pool of "human capital," while football (what the Yanks call "soccer") is far behind football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey in terms of popularity.

What may surprise Americans is that Belgium's ascent is a relatively recent phenomenon. Like the US, it was a nobody in world football until the past few years. (The Europeans were ranked 71st in the world in the mid-2000s.) Belgium made a concentrated effort to study what made great footballing nations tick:
First, inspired by research trips to the best training centres in France, the Netherlands and Germany, every youth team in the country was told to play a fluid and flexible 4-3-3 formation favoured by the national team. Sablon made a brochure and went to clubs, schools and all youth coaches and told them how to do it. "It wasn't easy to go to people and tell them to stop doing what they'd done for years," added Sablon.

Second, youth teams were no longer to focus on results. Sablon commissioned a study into youth football that saw 1,500 matches filmed and studied. One of the key findings was that too much emphasis was being placed on winning and not enough on developing players. It was win at all costs and that was costing Belgium. Sablon even went as far as ensuring under-seven and under-eight teams did not have league tables.
Next, isolationist xenophobes should take note: many top Belgian players also trace their roots from elsewhere, which is fairly common nowadays in world football. I guess "Fortress America" in the immigration debate won't help the footballing cause:
  • Adnan Januzaj - born and schooled in Belgium, has Kosovan-Albanian parentage and a family lineage that reaches to Turkey
  • Vincent Kompany - born in Brussels, Kompany's father, Pierre, is a Congolese immigrant. His mother, Jocelyne, is Belgian
  • Romelu Lukaku - born in Antwerp but his father played up front for DR Congo when it was known as Zaire
  • Mousa Dembele - born in Belgium but his father is from Mali
  • Axel Witsel - his Martiniquais parentage made him eligible for France
  • Nacer Chadli - born in Belgium but played senior international football for Morocco, but only in a friendly
  • Marouane Fellaini - Born in Brussels to Moroccan parents from Tangier
Third, even Belgians will tell you that competition in the domestic league is not the most intense. Just as the United States is a pre-retirement destination for big-name but washed-up international stars, nobody will say that either US or Belgian leagues will subject players to the rigors of international competition at the highest level. Ironically, to help Belgium--or the US for that matter--its most promising talent needs to be sent abroad. Belgian medalists in international football are legion:
  • Spain: La Liga winners - Thibaut Courtois and Toby Alderweireld, Atletico Madrid
  • England: Premier League winner - Vincent Kompany, Manchester City
  • FA Cup winner - Thomas Vermaelen, Arsenal
  • PFA Young Player of the Year - Eden Hazard, Chelsea
  • Community Shield: Adnan Januzaj, Manchester United
  • Germany: Bundesliga and German Cup winner - Daniel van Buyten, Bayern Munich
  • Italy: Coppa Italia winner - Dries Mertens, Napoli
I am unsure if the US can really compete in a truly "international" sport like football. (Not that they do any better at baseball.) Consider the three points made above: (1) Would brokebank Yank taxpayers readily fund youth academies for a furriner's sport in the United States? Youth development would be considered "socialism" by the Ann Coulter set who unfortunately typifies a lot of American attitudes. (2) You must be joking if the United States were to adopt more progressive migration policies to improve its footballing performance alone since a lot of the countries it would need to welcome more persons from--i.e., Latin America--are the "wrong" ones given longstanding US prejudices. (3) Not knowing any better and not really understanding how US leagues are (correctly) perceived as pre-retirement destinations for big-name stars wishing to cash in on their names when their abilities are no longer at the top level, Americans will probably regard the loss of top talent as "traitors."

It's a formidable list of obstacles to the US becoming more than an also-ran in football, and it goes far beyond sport to include other things such as migration policy. But if the Yanks ever get serious about doing better in football, well, there's Belgium to study for starters.