Devil of a time

Belgium have everything in place to host next year’s European Championship, except a reasonable football team.  Jan Antonissen reports on the co-hosts’ disarray

What the hell is wrong with Belgian football? At the 1998 World Cup Belgium were clearly the most cowardly team. The team didn’t lose in France, not even to the Dutch, yet they were sent home after the first round. Since last summer, the inappropriately named Red Devils have even lost the ability to draw. They lost five games in a row, and on March 30th were humiliated by Egypt in front of an outraged crowd in Liège. Belgium has become a Third World football nation.

A closer look at cycling, the only sport that is of any interest to all Belgians, serves as a reminder that Bel­gium need not always be dominated by others. Belgian cycling has a brand new star, Frank Vandenbroucke. He dyes his hair and bike every colour of the rainbow and declares himself favourite to win every important race. A few weeks ago he won his first World Cup race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, to huge celebrations throughout the country. The media suggested Van­denbroucke is the new Eddy Merckx, five times the winner of the Tour de France, the greatest cyclist ever.

Young Belgian footballers are among Vandenbroucke’s biggest admirers. “Those guts of Vandenbroucke,” said Hans Somers of SK Lierse in the weekly Humo. “He attacks on the very place he has predicted he would. It’s brilliant!”

Somers, together with Carl Hoefkens, Filip Daems and Jurgen Cavens, is the back­bone of the provincial club Lierse. They are all Belgian, and ve­ry talented. They will play in the cup final this season. “And,” says Somers, “if nothing comes in between, Lierse will be champions next season.”

This is not just a bold Vandenbrouckian statement. Lierse won the title two years ago. The team was broken up straight away but now they are back with a new generation, almost all of them graduates of their own youth school. Lierse proves, in a league overcrowded with second rate players from abroad, that there is nothing so valuable as a good youth programme.

Somers was injured at the end of April and so missed selection for Belgium’s 1-0 defeat in a friendly against Romania in April. But the other three, Hoefkens, Daems and Cavens, were, as substitutes. They are among the 63 players the national coach, Georges Leekens, has selected in just two and a half years. Such young talent should be the basis for Belgium’s rejuvenation, but Leekens has failed to give them a real chance. Instead he has muttered barely comprehensible excuses about “a work in progress”.

When he was appointed, Leekens’s main aim was to get the team to France 98 any way he could, which he just about managed. Since then his task has been to construct a team that could put up a good showing at Euro 2000 in Holland and Belgium, which he is find­ing much more difficult. One year before the tournament the co-hosts have no team. The youngsters don’t get a fair run and the key players from the older generation have gone on too long. The only constant is Leekens, who has a particularly expensive clause in his contract that will earn him a lot of money if he gets fired before the end of his term.

Leekens has written a book on a subject particularly in tune with the times – group dynamics. It claims to be a manual for winners in football and life, but it is a fake. The book has turned out to be sheer plagiarism. Leek­ens and his co-author, a low-budget eco­nomics guru, have just pillaged the best-sellers of succesful man­­agers with­out even bothering to adapt manager-speak to everyday language.

Leekens has proved a phoney in practice as well as in his published theor­ies. He claims Belgium is ready for attacking football but, deep in his heart, he em­braces an outdated cou­n­ter-attacking style.

In his playing days, Leek­ens was a defender who won just two caps. He belonged to the golden generation of Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets and Jean-Marie Pfaff, yet did not have even half of their ability. Nevertheless he had a fine career with FC Bruges, playing in their teams that lost the 1976 UEFA Cup final and the 1978 European Cup final to Liverpool. He overcame his limitations as a player through discipline, hard work and dirty tricks: all the things he later mistook for talent. Leekens distrusts talent. He is convinced football is a war that requires the blood, sweat and tears of veteran soldiers, not the whims of fresh recruits.

Leekens might have been expected at least to com­pensate for this lack of individual talent with meticulous preparation, yet here too he has been found wanting. A few months ago the president of the Belgian federation, Dr Michel D’Hooghe, said the collapse of the national team in France was due to a lack of adequate medical preparation. One of their opponents, Mexico, he suggested, had used EPO, the banned hormone popular among cyclists, which in­creases the amount of oxygen in red blood cells. This was a bizarre thing to say, given that the key figures in the drugs scandal that ruined the last Tour de France were Belgian doctors. But the truth leaked out at a medical congress: tests proved Belgium’s World Cup players were simply not fit to play a tournament. They were either carrying injuries or were out of condition.

Belgian football has no identity any more, let alone pride. Its only world star of the Nineties is Jean-Marc Bosman. It needs to start from scratch, with a good coach selecting good young players. That should not be a hard thing to do. Aside from the Lierse quartet, there is plenty of other talent available in the domestic league, including Anderlecht’s central midfielder Walter Baseggio and the explosive Congolese M’penza brothers. And there have never so many Belgian footballers playing abroad in major leagues such as Italy, Germany, France and Holland.

Yet Leekens insists each and every time that his hands are tied. “We lack individual talent,” he repeats. “We’ll never have the best or most beautiful team.” Maybe it’s about time he jumped on his bike and cyc­led into the sunset.

From WSC 148 June 1999. What was happening this month