Over the last eight years, the fruits of Belgium’s remarkable production line of talent have been eagerly snapped up by Europe’s biggest clubs.

And while Belgium’s remarkable rise owes plenty to the foundations laid by the club academies of local powerhouses Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Genk, as well as that of Dutch giants Ajax, the Red Devils run to the World Cup semi-finals also highlights the importance of individual career management for the national cause.

No two players have demonstrated this more than Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.

Just three years ago, they played for Wolfsburg and Everton respectively having seemingly failed to make their mark on Europe’s elite with Chelsea.

Now, with both making their mark on the blue and red halves of Manchester respectively, the dynamic duo are lighting up the World Cup as they spearhead the Red Devils’ charge for glory.

For a nation that has never won a major international trophy, the expectation on Belgium at the 2018 World Cup finals would have seemed odd from the outside looking in.

Not just to make it out of the group stage or to get to the quarter-finals, but to maybe even win the whole thing.

The feeling is there has never been a better time, nor a better generation of players, for Belgium to win the World Cup.

In the pain and misery of five consecutive failed qualification campaigns in which the Red Devils missed every major international tournament between Euro 2000 and Euro 2012, a new golden generation was being shaped.

Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and – to a lesser extent – Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Dries Mertens and Moussa Dembele were the first to make a mark for Belgium’s new-look national team in European clubland.

Those players have, for the most part, enjoyed stable club careers. Kompany has played for Manchester City since 2008, only his third senior club, while Hazard has served Chelsea, just his second senior club, with distinction since signing from Lille in 2012.

Europe’s biggest clubs were quick to spot the trend and as such the next wave of Belgian talent has been snapped up at younger and younger ages.

Lukaku signed for Chelsea when he was just 17, while De Bruyne was still relatively young when he joined Lukaku at Stamford Bridge at 21.

Others, like Adnan Januzaj and Dedryk Boyata, were also snapped up in their teens as clubs looked to unearth the next Hazard or Kompany.

Such moves were a nod of appreciation to the regard in which Belgian players are now held by the biggest clubs in football, but they also demonstrate how a nation’s reputation for producing good footballers can work against it as well.

Lukaku was a Chelsea player for three years but made just 15 league appearances, without a goal to his name. He was loaned to West Brom and then Everton, but despite scoring 32 Premier League goals in 66 appearances, Lukaku was still no more than a squad player. 

With his role clear, Lukaku angled for a permanent move to Everton ahead of the 2014-15 season.

De Bruyne was signed on the back of three impressive seasons with Genk but was loaned immediately on arrival to Werder Bremen, where he scored 10 goals in 34 games.

He managed to make just nine appearances upon his return to Stamford Bridge for the 2013-14 season and was sold mid-season to Wolfsburg. Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho did not want to lose him, but he did not want to play him week in, week out, either.

“[Mourinho] showed us the stats of all attacking midfielders: assists, goals, pass percentage, decisive actions, dribbles. He wanted to prove that I didn’t perform at the same level as the others,” De Bruyne told The Guardian in 2017. 

“I answered him: ‘Sorry, that’s not logical. I’ve played fewer games. How can you compare us?’ That wasn’t fair. Mourinho told me things about competition, training hard, there’s always a chance that you’ll play.

“He also made it clear that he wasn’t keen on letting me go, even not on loan – ‘you are a good player’. I told him that I had a feeling that I would never get a fair chance. That’s when the club started looking at a transfer too.”

It was a similar story for Lukaku.

When he left Stamford Bridge for a permanent move to Everton, Mourinho said, “He wanted to play for Chelsea but wanted to be the first-choice striker. That's very difficult to promise.”

It takes a lot of courage to stand up to names like Mourinho and clubs like Chelsea, and not accept the paths they have laid out for you.

Most would have considered their moves backward steps for players of their calibre, but their decisions to seek out regular first-team action wherever they could find it has proven crucial for their careers and for Belgium.

Lukaku spent three seasons as an Everton player, racking up 133 senior appearances and scoring 71 goals, while De Bruyne would make 72 appearances in just over two seasons for Wolfsburg, including 16 goals from 51 games in 2014-15 with Wolfsburg before Manchester City snapped him up at the start of the following season.

Since signing for City, De Bruyne’s form has been crucial to the club’s fortunes, most notably a Premier League triumph this season.

Lukaku’s form with Everton was enough to earn him a move to Manchester United, where he has lit up Old Trafford with 27 goals in 51 appearances.

In the four years since the 2014 World Cup and their respective moves, they have amassed 380 senior games between them, the experience which has been crucial to shaping the players they are today.

Since 2014, Lukaku and De Bruyne have won 47 caps each for their country, while the former has scored 37 goals for Belgium in the same period, becoming the nation’s best ever goalscorer.

So far at this World Cup, Lukaku has scored four of Belgium’s 14 goals and providing an assist, while De Bruyne scored Belgium’s crucial second goal against Brazil in the quarter-finals and providing an assist.

Those numbers alone hardly do justice to their overall contribution to the team’s cause, and it would be hard to imagine them having such an impact at this World Cup had they spent the last four years playing a squad role or acclimatising to new surrounds every season on loan.

Europe’s elite clubs are so quick to snap up young talent, as if in some sort of arms race, but this stockpiling of talent so often comes to the detriment of the individual players. 

Judgments are made of players after a mere handful of senior games – if they’re lucky enough to even have those opportunities – and shipped out on loan where they must impress for clubs who view them as expendable options of convenience.

Sometimes, even impressing on loan isn’t enough.

Coaches and fans are quick to lament player power in the modern age, particularly when their brightest prospects agitate for moves. Players like Lukaku and De Bruyne are labeled impatient or told they lack the character required to stick it out and force their ways into their coach’s first-team plans and forge an elite career.

But sometimes, players need to be selfish and take a step back before they can move forward and that has certainly proven true for Lukaku and De Bruyne.

Belgium is now reaping the benefits of their bravery and having already knocked Brazil out of the Cup, the Red Devils have France in their sights.

And if Lukaku and De Bruyne can fire, then perhaps not even the mighty France will be able to resist the Belgian football revolution.

The semi-final between France and Belgium will be played on 10 July in St Petersburg (4.00am, Wednesday 11 July AEST). 

Categories: Opinion | People | World Cup

belgium, kevin de bruyne, romelu lukaku

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