Skip to main content

2014 World Cup: Is Belgium football's coming force?

updated 7:01 AM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Mousa Dembele (right) is a key part of the Belgium side hoping to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Mousa Dembele (right) is a key part of the Belgium side hoping to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
HIDE CAPTION
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
Belgium' s World Cup Red Devils
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Belgium is considered one of the dark horses to win the World Cup in Brazil
  • Nation has one of the most gifted squads in football thanks to outstanding youth program
  • Can qualify for the 2014 tournament on Friday night with draw in Croatia
  • Dembele believes his side can do 'something special' next July

(CNN) -- One country, two languages -- and one dream of winning the World Cup.

If Belgium is divided by the Flemish speakers who live in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south, the nation's footballers are united with one goal.

And with its place at the 2014 World Cup finals almost secure, midfielder Mousa Dembele believes Belgium's multicultural array of stars can follow in the footsteps of France's 1998 winning team.

Like Les Bleus -- a team which included players of African and Caribbean heritage -- Belgium's class of 2013 has a cosmopolitan feel.

Striker Christian Benteke was born in Kinshasa, Congo, while the likes of Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany and Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku are both of Congolese heritage.

Kompany's meteoric rise to the top
Kompany on grooming the next generation
Kompany on future ambitions

Then there is Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini, who along with Tottenham's Nacer Chadli and 17-year-old starlet Zakaria Bakkali is of Moroccan descent.

Read: Will Belgium win the World Cup?

Dembele himself was born in Belgium after his father moved from Mali -- of which he remains proud.

And while the 26-year-old considers himself Belgian, he believes the ethnic mix within the team has made his time in the national setup a more enjoyable experience.

"We get on very well, I think," Dembele told CNN ahead of Friday's trip to Croatia, where a draw will be enough to clinch Belgium's 2014 place as winner of Group A with a match to spare.

"It makes us strong. We have all kinds of players and perhaps you can compare us to the France side which won the World Cup in 1998.

"I think it's fair to say we're like them. Perhaps you could say we're also like Germany in a way.

"With Germany, you can see there's a real mix of nationalities in their team. I like that approach because I'm of mixed nationality myself."

It's a nuanced response from Dembele and contrasts sharply with the view of Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, who said this week only English people should play for England.

While the Belgium players remain united, the team will often arrange separate interviews for Flemish and French speakers.

Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen will speak to the press in Flemish, while Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel, whose father came from the Caribbean island of Martinique, will give his thoughts in French.

Vincent Kompany enjoys the lifestyle which comes with being a modern millionaire footballer. But, despite rising to the top of his sport, the Belgian remains grounded and committed to education. Vincent Kompany enjoys the lifestyle which comes with being a modern millionaire footballer. But, despite rising to the top of his sport, the Belgian remains grounded and committed to education.
In good Kompany
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Vincent Kompany\'s rise to the top Vincent Kompany's rise to the top
Football comes to Buckingham Palace
Ginola answers questions on Qatar 2022

One team

But the divisions stop there -- on the pitch these players have come together to give Belgian football its most exciting generation of players since the team reached the 1986 World Cup semifinal.

The path to today's array of riches has not been an easy one -- Belgium has failed to qualify for the past five major tournaments and only an extensive overhaul of its playing structure has ensured that the country has not been left behind.

"Some 13 years ago the Belgian Football Federation decided to reorganize Belgian football programs and set up in every province an elite academy," leading Belgium youth football coach Michel Bruyninckx, who has long been interested in maximizing the way players use their brain in games as part of his innovative training sessions, told CNN in a recent interview.

"In collaboration with all the universities in our country and after studying the strategies of other countries the Belgian FA composed a plan with the new vision implemented in the different federation academies and then step-by-step integrated in the club programs.

Read: Why school paid off for Kompany

"Just as importantly the Ministry of Education agreed to create a school curriculum to extend the number of weekly training hours.

"That meant we could guarantee young talents would have about 20 hours training time a week and their school programs were never in danger.

"The structure, organization and lifestyle in the academies was regularly checked to make sure that this project delivered professional players or highly qualified young people."

Youth program

Qatar 2022: Too hot for football?
Prince William shows off his footballing skills during a training session on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Prince William shows off his footballing skills during a training session on the grounds of Buckingham Palace.
Footballing royal
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
Prince William hosts Buckingham Palace football match Prince William hosts Buckingham Palace football match

The project has been a huge success -- Belgium's top club side Anderlecht competes in the European Champions League with a team boasting an average of just 22.5 years.

The club's youth teams have been dominating on both the national and European stage, while the Belgian Under-21 side recently defeated Italy 3-1.

"Anderlecht have won five of the eight national youth championships and many important European tournaments such as the Viareggio, the Aegon Future Cup and the Premier League Cup," added Bruyninckx.

"The integration of many very young players in the first team is the proof of the success of what has happened in Belgium. Most of all Youri Tielemans, the 16-year-old player who has surprised the whole of Belgium and is the product of the new strategy."

Star pupils

One of those players to have come through the Anderlecht system announced himself on the world stage last weekend.

Adnan Januzaj scored twice on his full Premier League debut for Manchester United in a 2-1 win at Sunderland -- sparking a wild frenzy among a whole host of nations which want to secure his international future.

The 18-year-old, who was born in Belgium, could potentially play for his country of birth as well as Albania, Turkey, Serbia or Kosovo, which has yet to be recognized by FIFA.

Even England has made overtures in attracting the youngster to wearing the Three Lions.

There may be a chance Januzaj will wear the red of Belgium, but that is for the future -- he has refused all international call-ups so far.

Now Belgium is hoping that the culmination of the project will take place in Brazil next July with its group of players one of the most talented in Europe.

Behold the "Zlatan burger", a mountain of meat dedicated to Paris Saint-Germain's star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The $41 monster is the brainchild of French cafe manager Jean-Philippe Grandin. Behold the "Zlatan burger", a mountain of meat dedicated to Paris Saint-Germain's star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The $41 monster is the brainchild of French cafe manager Jean-Philippe Grandin.
'Le Zlatan'
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
>
>>
The Zlatan Ibrahimovic burger The Zlatan Ibrahimovic burger
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was the focus of a 2012 Harvard Business School study on leadership. According to author and management consultant, Mike Carson, those in business can learn much from analyzing the work of successful football coaches like Ferguson. Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was the focus of a 2012 Harvard Business School study on leadership. According to author and management consultant, Mike Carson, those in business can learn much from analyzing the work of successful football coaches like Ferguson.
Learning from football's leaders
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
What can football managers teach you about leadership? What can football managers teach you about leadership?

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has starred in Spain's La Liga for Atletico Madrid, while Chelsea's Eden Hazard is regarded as one of the most exciting playmakers in the world.

Benteke and Lukaku are two of the most lethal finishers in the English Premier League, while Fellaini commanded a $43 million transfer fee when he joined Manchester United from Everton in August.

Then there is the prodigiously talented Bakkali -- who, at 17 years and 196 days old, became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Dutch league, for PSV Eindhoven in August.

'Something special'

There is talent everywhere you look -- it is a squad which promises to thrill, excite, inspire and perhaps, just perhaps, win.

"For the past three years we've known that we've had some good players but we didn't always get the results," Dembele says.

"I think now you can see we have a lot more confidence there. With the World Cup, it's all looking good for us but it's not done quite yet.

"I think there are some difficult games to play but we're confident.

"We have a very good team, so we don't have to be scared. But we have to be concentrated, and I believe if we get to Brazil we can do something special, but we have to get there first."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
While many top European clubs are targeting the U.S. market, French football is setting its sights on expanding into Asia -- with China playing a key role.
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Major League Soccer has snared another big name from England with former Chelsea star Frank Lampard committing his future to New York City FC.
updated 12:56 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Europe's top clubs have booked a summer holiday to the U.S. -- but this is business not pleasure as they look to cash in on the World Cup afterglow.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Brazil's new coach Dunga won the World Cup as a player in 1994.
Former World Cup-winning captain Dunga is appointed coach of Brazil's national team for the second time, charged with restoring national pride.
updated 10:20 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Colombia's World Cup star James Rodriguez continues Real Madrid's long tradition of signing "Galacticos."
updated 6:07 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Germany's World Cup-winning captain Philipp Lahm has decided to go out at the top by announcing his retirement from international football.
The U.S. government recognizes Kosovo, as do most European states, but getting football's ruling bodies to play ball has proved harder.
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Wed June 4, 2014
National heroes don't always belong to one country. Ask France's World Cup hero Patrick Vieira, who is rediscovering his roots.
CNN's John Sinnott on the quiet Cambridge graduate behind Liverpool's resurgent campaign.
updated 11:19 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
They are the dispossessed -- stateless, and unrecognized by football's ruling body. But these teams will still play at their own World Cup.
Louis van Gaal will be a perfect fit for Manchester United the club, business and brand, says CNN's Patrick Snell.
updated 3:24 PM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
There's a new force in Spanish football -- and Atletico Madrid's ascendance is sharply contrasted by the fall from power of Barcelona.
ADVERTISEMENT