After spawning a generation of talent to rival any in the history of football, Belgium rocketed from nobodies to major tournament contenders in the space of a few short years and are currently considered 9/1 fifth-favourites to win Euro 2016.
It may be the first version of the competition they’ve qualified for since co-hosting the event in 2000, but with a roster stocked to the brim with supreme quality, few would debate their place amongst the frontrunners.
Having seen vast swathes of elite performers drift across the Belgian border into other European nations, it’s understandable that the land of chocolate and strong beer is where top clubs would send their sharpest scouts in search of soccer’s next wonder boy.
Liverpool, who pay the wages of no fewer than three members of Belgium’s Euros squad, will look to utilise this recruitment strategy this summer if various reports are to be believed, with some sources bold enough to suggest the Reds have agreed a £4m deal with Anderlecht for winger Samuel Bastien.
The 19-year-old spent last season on loan at Serie B’s Avellino but a tally of just two goals in 31 appearances ensures he won’t be missed too much in Campania.
Such a poor return at a level as low as the Italian second tier suggests perhaps Bastien’s potential isn’t all it has been hyped up to be and presents cause to question whether the Belgian geysers spouting superstar after superstar have finally been exhausted.
Indeed, with 14 of their 23-man squad selected for the Euros aged between 24 and 29, De Rode Duivels’ golden crop of players is rapidly approaching its peak.
In terms of juniors selected for the senior squad, six members are aged 23 or younger, with only one of these – Romelu Lukaku (a seasoned international of 43 caps) – looking likely to start in France.
Those young Belgians tipped as the ‘next big things’ have long been talked about, but the majority have eluded the tractor beams of the continent’s main talent hoarders, casting doubt on whether their ability is as high as those hoping to sell them would have us believe.
Take Bastien’s Anderlecht colleague Dennis Praet. Now 22, the midfielder’s playmaking gifts have been subject of much discussion, but no one has as of yet has been convinced enough to buy him. Even the senior side have allowed him one cap.
Youri Tielemans, who also remains at Anderlecht, is another subject to widespread over-celebration. The feted teen’s omission from Marc Wilmots’ Euros squad is especially alarming given the stark lack of deep-lying midfielders selected.
Elsewhere, it took centre-back Bjorn Engels, who missed out on Euro 2016 selection through injury, until the age of 21 before the continent’s aristocracy were made aware of his existence, while widely-lauded Charly Musonda was loaned out by Chelsea in what has been a red letter campaign for the Blues in terms of giving youth a chance.
Prodigy vacuums such as the west Londoners proved with Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois they’re prepared to pay top dollar for youngsters they believe will one day prosper in the first team/make them some money.
Yet they and their like-minded rivals have so far steered clear of the youngsters to follow the aforementioned trio through Belgium’s youth ranks, suggesting they’re not made of the same stellar substance.