Óscar Washington Tabárez will have been at the helm 10 years when Uruguay takes on Brazil in the third round of the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. After success at the 2010 World Cup, finishing fourth and the 2011 Copa America title, OWT and company were unable to follow-up with any kind of success at the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Copa America. In the initial four years, the Uruguayan national team went through some major transformations; the last years, progress (if any) would appear to be slower. The last article in this series looked at the Spanish national team and their transformation, or revolution. This time we turn our focus to Belgium.
The story of Belgian football holds some similarities to Uruguayan football. Belgium is a small country of only 11 million people, with 34 professional clubs competing in two top leagues. Traditionally, the national football team and the top Belgian division had a reputation for physical play (and poor technical skill). During the 90s, teams in Belgium played with individual marking, sometimes with a sweeper. They played 4-4-2 or even 3-5-2. Play could be described as defensive, relying on the counter-attack. Belgium co-hosted Euro 2000 (and so automatically qualified) but they went through a decade where they were not able to qualify for World Cups or Euros. They did not qualify for the Euro 2004, 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup or Euro 2012.
But the alarms had already started ringing in the 1998 World Cup when Belgium was eliminated in the group stage. There was no unified vision for youth development at the time. So, in 2002, the Belgium Football Association started to look at the French model, and even met with their French counterparts. They also looked at Netherlands and even Germany. The Technical Director Michel Sablon sat down with his staff and outlined a development plan. They went to the clubs and presented their plan. They asked the teams to play the 4-3-3 formation with wingers, three midfielders and a flat back four. It was difficult since for most of the coaches and the clubs, all they cared about was winning. The University of Brussels was commissioned to audit all the club youth systems and make recommendations. The University of Louvain carried out an extensive study on youth football in Belgium, filming 1,500 matches across different age groups. One of the main findings: far too much emphasis on winning and not enough on development. There was also evidence to support the federation’s theory that 2v2, 5v5 and 8v8 were the best small-sided games to encourage children to practise skills like dribbling and diagonal passing that are keys to playing 4-3-3. It took more than six years before Sablon’s plan had widespread acceptance. Initially it was a tough sell especially when the youth sides kept losing.
By co-hosting Euro 2000, Belgium made a healthy profit and Sablon made sure that a significant portion of that money was invested in youth development. A new national football centre was built on the outskirts of Brussels. The number of people enrolling on the entry-level coaching course increased tenfold after the federation made it free. A joint initiative between the soccer federation and the government saw eight schools introduced between 1998 and 2002, with the aim of providing the most talented kids, aged between 14 and 18, with additional training (four mornings a week and two hours at a time) during the normal curriculum. The clubs played a major role as well; they eventually bought into the philosophy and even developed their own strategies for development.
It has been a long and arduous road but it took a country ranked 27th in 2001 to the current rank of 1st. What Belgium has accomplished is a revolution, considering that Belgium’s style changed from “negative and defensive to the point of giving the ball away and waiting to counter” to an offensive, attractive, attacking style.
End of Part 2.