Thursday’s Europa League fixture between Ajax and Manchester United, two clubs I’ve supported for a very long time, was a very interesting one. My 15-year old cousin kept on asking me why Belgium did not qualify for the EURO 2012 Championships after seeing Jan Vertonghen rubbing shoulders with the boys from Manchester. So why has a Belgian side with young and talented players failed to qualify for such a major tournament?
Ajax’s defensive pair Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld were unable to qualify for EURO 2012 with the Red Devils (not United but the Belgian national side). Last year Aldeweireld and Vertonghen were Eredivisie champions with Ajax but they have failed to produce the same form for the Red Devils
Toby Alderweireld (22) has developed into one of the best, right footed central defenders of his generation. But the Ajax defender still has a long way to go in the Belgian national team as there is a big competition for places .The Red Devil’s central defence has players like Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen (Ajax) and Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich).And because of the competition for places, Aldwerweireld has become the Red Devil’s permanent right back .Unlike Ajax’s Van der Wiel, Toby is less offensive but does his defensive duties perfectly.
Toby [Alderweireld] and Jan [Vertonghen] were criticized during the EURO 2012 qualifiers for non performance. I do not blame them because they did not play in their natural positions. Just as Alderweireld has become Belgium’s right back, Vertonghen has been utilised as a left back.
The Red Devils have failed to qualify for a major international tournament since the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan & Korea (though they qualified for the Olympic Games in 2008).Belgium enjoyed a run of six consecutive FIFA World Cup appearances until they missed out on Germany 2006 and South Africa. The current selection is just overflowing with talent.
On paper, Belgium can call upon an armada of stars, all plying their trade for top European clubs. The depth of their talent pool is amazing. Belgium has players like crowd favourite Eden Hazard (Lille), Steven Defour (FC Porto), Axel Witsel (Benfica), Dries Mertens (PSV), Marouane Fellaini (Everton), Nacer Chadli (FC Twente), Maarten Martens (AZ) and Moussa Dembélé (Fulham).The likes of Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich) and Timmy Simons (Nürnberg) have already established themselves as senior figures. Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid) and Jelle Vossen (Racing Genk) are the latest stars to emerge.
In 1998, the side coached by Georges Leekens in his first spell at the helm came third in their group in France and made an early exit. Known as Mac the Knife in his country, he named Vincent Kompany as the Belgium captain. The Manchester City captain finished last season winning the Manchester City Player’s Player of the Year for his outstanding performances. The defender is yet to be at his best for the Red Devils.
Where did it go wrong?
Defensive blunders against Azerbaijan (1-1) and at home against a 10-man Austrian side (4-4) were the main reasons why the Belgians failed to qualify for another major tournament. Against Azerbaijan, Kompany and Aldeweireld were to blame for their opponent’s goals. At home, the Belgians gave away a 4-3 lead five minutes to the end of the game. Their efforts were hampered by a lack of consistency and an inability to get the most out of undeniably promising young talents. Immaturity and lack of concentration have let the Red Devils down.
The forgotten Devil: Jelle Van Damme
While the Dutch keep on asking why Bert van Marwijk overlooks Clarence Seedorf (even though most of us know the main reason why) and picks Stijn Schaars, the Belgians are also facing the same problem. Anderlecht’s goalkeeper Silvio Proto and Standard Liege captain Jelle Van Damme are not part of Mac the Knife’s plans. Van Damme who is married to former tennis player Elke Clijsters, (sister of Kim Clijsters) has decided to quit international football.
Is there still hope as the exiled nation eyes a World Cup return?
Belgium’s 2014 FIFA World Cup campaign begins in Wales. Timmy Simmons and Van Buyten are the only members of the team that played at Belgium’s last FIFA World Cup appearance. This will be their last chance to play in another major tournament.”It’s a group where every team is capable of beating everyone else, but also of losing points to everyone else. Croatia and Serbia are two very difficult opponents. We mustn’t underestimate Macedonia to ensure we don’t drop points. Scotland and Wales can play good football. We need to be prepared to try and beat everyone, because it’s something you have to be able to do if you want to qualify. So I’m fairly happy. Everyone will have to be at their best.”-Georges Leekens, Belgium coach
Coaches have come and gone in recent years without being able to get Belgium’s gifted individuals to jell. The potential is there but the results have yet to follow, and the Red Devils will need to integrate their exciting young players alongside veterans Daniel van Buyten and Timmy Simons if they are to return to the global stage in Brazil.