How a nation of just 11 million people became world's top-ranked football team

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It’s 1 of the top achievements successful the satellite of sport: conscionable however connected world did 1 of the smaller countries assemble the top-ranked squad successful the astir fashionable crippled connected the planet?

Belgium, a state of astir 11 cardinal people, wedged betwixt France and Germany successful Western Europe and dwarfed by the onshore wide and colonisation size of those neighbors, archetypal made it to the apical of the FIFA rankings successful 2015 and has remained firmly connected the perch ever since 2018.

In the adjacent 18 months, Belgium is hoping for a large trophy to validate their dominance connected the satellite stage, but adjacent without a rubric tally astatine the European Championship oregon the 2022 World Cup, their squad of planetary superstars indispensable inactive beryllium the envy of shot administrators everywhere. And the Red Devils aren’t readying connected going anywhere.

The travel began from the pit of despair, Belgium’s joyousness of co-hosting the 2000 European Championship ended successful humiliation arsenic they were bundled retired successful the radical signifier of the competition. Just 9 days aft thousands of achromatic balloons had been released successful solemnisation to footwear disconnected the tourney astatine the King Baudouin Stadium, the bubble had been emphatically burst wrong the aforesaid arena.

A sun-dappled evening successful Brussels finished successful the gloom of a 2-0 decision by Turkey, 2 goals from Hakan Sükür -- the archetypal of which volition person fixed goalkeeper Filip de Wilde nightmares -- compelled elder figures successful the Belgian Football Association to behaviour a basal and subdivision reappraisal of their full shot strategy.

Luc Nilis of Belgium reacts arsenic his state are knocked retired of Euro 2000, prompting the Belgian FA into a implicit overhaul. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)

A Belgium instrumentality looks dejected arsenic the nationalist squad is knocked retired of the radical stages astatine Euro 2000. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)

Michel Sablon was the nationalist team’s method manager astatine the time. He said the enactment arsenic tourney hosts was a “big success,” yet the show connected the tract was thing but. “It was not bully for the players, not bully for the clubs, not bully for the nationalist team,” helium told CNN. “It truly was the bottom.”

As it happens, Euro 2000 marked a turning constituent for 2 of the teams successful action. Germany’s arsenic disastrous group-stage departure, featuring a uncommon decision to England, prompted a thorough reappraisal of their shot philosophy. It was a rebirth that would output a World Cup triumph 14 years aboriginal and Belgium was astir to embark connected thing similar.

Sablon didn’t discarded overmuch time, moving to place a caller imaginativeness for shot successful their country. “We did it connected a Saturday and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We started from scratch with a achromatic portion of insubstantial and we developed the full thing.”

Nothing was near to chance. Sablon explained however they recruited 4 universities to assistance probe the workload of younker players successful either five-a-side oregon eight-a-side games.

No item was excessively small; for example, was 9 o’clock connected a Sunday greeting truly the champion clip for the kids to play? They analyzed information from 1,500 younker games, enlisted the practice of 70 coaches astatine each levels of the crippled and made 120 presentations to the clubs that took astir a year.

The traditional, but rigid, 4-4-2 enactment was discarded successful favour of a much flexible and attacking 4-3-3 line-up, which forced idiosyncratic players to instrumentality much work with the ball.

It was an ambitious plan, but the humble size of Belgium’s shot programme mightiness person been a help, alternatively than a hindrance.

With hardly 2 twelve nonrecreational clubs successful the country, it was easier to get everybody singing from the aforesaid opus sheet, and arsenic a state without a past of large achievements, determination was possibly much state to effort and little unit for an contiguous instrumentality connected investment.

Every nine successful the state bought into it. Inevitably, determination were teething problems, but Sablon believed that if they could clasp their nerve, they’d beryllium okay.

“I retrieve that the archetypal crippled we did it with was the Under-17 squad against France. We mislaid 7-1 and past the absorption came, of course. But a twelvemonth later, successful the aforesaid property category, we dominated France and bushed them.”

It took time, helium recalled, but successful hindsight the lone hard happening was deciding to embark connected the travel successful the archetypal place.

Around this time, budding young players similar Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were conscionable eight, 10 and 10 years aged respectively. Nobody could person perchance known it then, but they and galore different players of their procreation would soon beryllium launched connected a vocation trajectory that would alteration the satellite game.

1 20 40 60 80 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

June 2000 Rank: 30 Knocked retired of location Euros successful radical stages… Belgian federation begins operation overhaul. October 2003 Rank: 16 Begins a tally of missing 5 consecutive large tournaments – 3 Euros and 2 World Cups. Too aboriginal successful the caller younker programme to spot the benefits. June 2007 Rank: 71 Drops to No. 71 successful the world, country’s lowest ever ranking. August 2010 Rank: 48 Lukaku and De Bruyne marque elder Belgium debuts by then. Country begins to emergence up the rankings arsenic its ‘golden generation’ develops. July 2014 Rank: 5 Reaches World Cup quarterfinals for lone the 2nd clip successful history. November 2015 Rank: 1 Reaches FIFA satellite No. 1 ranking for the archetypal time. July 2016 Rank: 2 Shock quarterfinal elimination to Wales astatine Euro 2016 costs Marc Wilmots his job, and Roberto Martínez is hired. July 2018 Rank: 3 Finishes 3rd astatine the World Cup, knocking retired Brazil on the way, and soon returns to satellite No. 1

FIFA satellite ranking of the Belgian nationalist team

Source: International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA), Transfermarkt

Romelu Lukaku is 1 of the astir almighty forwards connected the planet, a deadly finisher who has conscionable helped Inter Milan to the Serie A rubric successful Italy.

Lukaku has ne'er been abbreviated connected confidence, oregon the hunger and tendency to succeed. It says a batch astir his self-belief that helium knew, arsenic a 16-year-old, that helium was bully capable to play successful the Belgian nationalist team. It mightiness besides accidental thing astir the spot of the squad astatine that time.

“I knew I had the full package,” helium told CNN Sport, “I thought to myself that I was antithetic than each the different players they had up front.”

Lukaku made his planetary debut erstwhile helium was 17 and is present his country’s grounds goalscorer. Back then, helium was besides playing with and against the aboriginal stars of the nationalist team: “We knew that astatine 1 point, we would instrumentality over.”

The Belgian squad present enjoys an aerial of familiarity that would beryllium the envy of galore nine sides -- the players spell mode back.

Lukaku explains however helium has known galore of his teammates since helium was 11 oregon 12 years old, and they person often reminisced astir the aged days erstwhile they’re unneurotic connected planetary duty.

“We utilized to beryllium each unneurotic astatine 1 array and statement who had the champion younker team, who was scoring the astir goals, the tournaments we utilized to attend. It was cool.”

Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku person been playing against each different since they were young, creating a adjacent enslaved erstwhile they’re unneurotic for the nationalist team. (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images)

“We cognize each different since a agelong time,” said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, telling CNN Sport: “For example, I played against Lukaku erstwhile we were 12, 13 years old. So that's similar fractional my lifetime. When we travel together, we are a radical of friends.

“I retrieve going to our archetypal World Cup successful Brazil, radical said, ‘How volition the players behave aft 1 period being together? Will determination beryllium fights? Will determination beryllium problems betwixt them?’ And it wasn't, due to the fact that we cognize each different precise well. We are a radical of friends. We spell play play together. We play cards together. We play PlayStation together.”

“We cognize each different done and through,” says Lukaku. “It’s easier erstwhile you play successful a radical and you’ve known astir everybody for many, galore years.”

A halfway radical of Belgium’s existent squad is highly experienced; 9 of them person played 80 oregon much games for their country, 4 person earned much than 100 caps and 2 -- Lukaku and De Bruyne -- are among the apical 10 astir invaluable players successful the world.

Coach Roberto Martínez notes that it is highly antithetic for immoderate nationalist squad to person truthful overmuch acquisition crossed each position. Speaking successful March, helium told CNN, “In the past 52 games that I’ve been successful charge, we've got an mean of 3 goals per crippled … there's a existent continuity that you don't get successful planetary football.”

Estimated marketplace worth of players

Players with the highest mean marketplace worth implicit the past 10 years

Squad value

Tap ellipse to spot subordinate value

Rollover to spot subordinate value


Note: Values are not transportation fees paid; they are estimations of subordinate request astatine immoderate time, accounting for salaries, transfers, age, performance, league and different factors. €1 = $1.22

Source: Transfermarkt

When Belgium takes to the tract successful this summer’s European Championships and adjacent year’s World Cup successful Qatar, they volition beryllium surviving impervious of the benefits of diverseness and inclusiveness. At a clip successful satellite past erstwhile racism, xenophobia and intolerance are connected the rise, Belgium has shown the possibilities erstwhile taste and spiritual differences are embraced.

“A batch of players person Congolese roots,” says Lukaku, whose begetter Roger played for what was past Zaire, present the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Some players person Spanish oregon Moroccan roots. It shows it doesn’t substance what contention you have, arsenic agelong arsenic you enactment unneurotic properly, everything tin beryllium OK.”

“We are a unusual country,” noted Courtois. “We person the Dutch part, the French portion and the German part. Obviously, it’s not casual being 1 federation together, but I deliberation Belgium has this beauteous sight.”

In specified a tiny country, 3 antithetic languages mightiness beryllium a hindrance to progress, but successful Belgium it has go a strength.

Roberto Martínez has been the team’s manager since 2016 and helium concurs, “I deliberation that diverseness is astir apt the biggest limb that we person successful our dressing room. You ever get antithetic views, antithetic solutions. You're precise alert successful a young property that successful beingness you tin bash things successful many, galore ways; that is the mode that you look adversity.”

Martínez is Spanish, but helium understands the advantages of broadening one’s horizons astatine an aboriginal age. He explains however helium spent astir of his nonrecreational vocation successful Britain earlier moving to Belgium with his Scottish wife, and helium tin admit that 1 of Belgium’s biggest strengths is that its players person traveled the satellite and person past brought each that acquisition home.

“You person to get retired of your comfortableness zone,” says Lukaku. “The players that are present went retired of their comfortableness portion to marque a vocation for themselves. We near and we tested ourselves, we took a hazard and that is what shot has to be.”

2000 squad*: Share of Belgian nationalist squad players astatine clubs worldwide

2000 squad*: Share of Champions League clubs

2021 squad*: Share of Belgian nationalist squad players astatine clubs worldwide

2021 squad*: Share of Champions League clubs

Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic

*The 2000 squad is from a World Cup qualifier successful September 2000 and the 2021 squad is for the upcoming Euros.
Note: numbers are rounded, truthful percentages whitethorn not adhd up to a hundred.
Source: Royal Belgian Football Association, The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, determination was astir nary subordinate playing extracurricular Belgium,” observed Courtois, “Now, astir everyone is playing successful 1 of the biggest teams successful the world.”

Courtois has won large trophies with some Madrid clubs (Atlético and Real) positive 2 Premier League titles with Chelsea successful England. De Bruyne has go 1 of the champion players successful the satellite astatine Manchester City, wherever his trophy number has conscionable reached treble digits; Hazard has won home league titles successful 3 antithetic countries and the Europa League doubly with Chelsea; Lukaku has played for Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United and is present a champion successful Italy.

That’s to accidental thing of the exploits of defenders Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Jan Vertonghen (Benfica) and Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), midfielders Youri Tielemans (Leicester City) and Eden’s member Thorgan Hazard (Dortmund) and forwards Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Michy Batshuayi, who played astatine Crystal Palace past play connected indebtedness from Chelsea.

Belgium’s nonrecreational shot pyramid, wherever galore of these players began their careers, tin lone enactment 2 leagues and 26 teams, but truthful prodigious is their endowment improvement that galore Belgian players could locomotion into immoderate squad successful the satellite and it’s the quality of their upbringing that’s helped marque it possible.

“When Marc Wilmots was the manager [from 2012-2016], helium spoke successful Dutch and partially successful French,” Lukaku explains. “Now, with Roberto Martínez, everybody speaks English, but we talk to each different successful French and Dutch.”

“There's not a occupation astir learning languages astatine the property of 4 oregon 5 years old,” observes Martínez, “I spot kids speaking 3 and 4 languages and it's unthinkable however that opens up. The Belgian wants to beryllium of work to the group.

“I would accidental that that's the biggest spot of the Belgian arsenic a footballer. He volition conscionable locomotion into the dressing country and effort to beryllium valuable. It is not a taste barrier.”

“I deliberation that diverseness is astir apt the biggest limb that we person successful our dressing room. You ever get antithetic views, antithetic solutions. You're precise alert successful a young property that successful beingness you tin bash things successful many, galore ways; that is the mode that you look adversity.”

Roberto Martínez, Belgium Manager

When the architects of Belgium’s caller imaginativeness were laying retired their plans, they knew that determination would beryllium immoderate short-term pain. What they possibly didn’t foresee was specified a agelong play successful the shot wilderness.

Between 2004 and 2007, their FIFA ranking cratered from 16th to 71st successful the world, and betwixt 2004 and 2012, they failed to suffice for immoderate large tourney -- 2 World Cups and 3 European Championships. But the symptom has been much than worthy it.

Martínez present boasts of having 3 beardown players successful each presumption and a self-sustaining exemplary that everybody has bought into -- nary little than 23 players are a 3rd of the mode done UEFA’s three-year coaching people and, astatine the extremity of their playing careers, are expected to instrumentality to enactment successful Belgium to assistance make the adjacent generation.

In the meantime, they’re blessed to amusement the younger squad players the ropes.

While Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ mightiness beryllium aging, young stars similar Youri Tielemans supply plentifulness of anticipation for the future. (Michael Regan/The FA/Getty Images)

The 24-year-old Tielemans, who precocious scored 1 of the champion goals ever witnessed successful the FA Cup last for Leicester City, would beryllium considered 1 of the younger players, but he’s already richly experienced; helium made respective appearances astatine the 2018 World Cup and is approaching 40 caps.

“I’m going to person that mentality to effort and triumph each crippled that I tin and to walk that connection onto the caller guys,” helium told CNN. “Passing connected that connection to the younger players, hopefully, we volition support the aforesaid mentality and physique the success.”

“There is an involvement of trying to hole the players of the future,” Martínez explained, emphasizing his optimism astir the years ahead. “They attraction [about] educating the younger group. They are influencing Belgian shot present similar it's ne'er been done. I'm definite that this procreation volition beryllium successful Belgian shot for galore years to come.”

Such a corporate cognition speaks to Martínez’s benignant of coaching, which helium describes arsenic ‘shared aspiration.’ “I've been portion of groups wherever the person wants to enforce however to bash things -- I ne'er believed successful that. The infinitesimal that idiosyncratic turns his back, past you suffer power of what that radical is moving towards.

“Our passionateness should beryllium a precise wide goal, a dream. I ever judge that if we stock our passionateness past it’s precise casual to perpetrate to the origin and springiness everything, not conscionable the 2 hours that we are successful training.”

Rise of the Red Devils: How Belgium became the fig 1 squad successful the world.

While Belgium’s existent occurrence communicative mightiness beryllium unusual, they’re not the archetypal state to acquisition a ‘golden generation’ of shot talent. It’s a script that each footballing federation would strive for, but a statement that presents a unsocial unit to win with a trophy.

Spain won 3 consecutive tournaments betwixt 2008 and 2012 and France won the 1998 World Cup and the Euros successful 2000, but Portugal’s squad of Rui Costa and Luís Figo failed to deliver. The Iberian federation was capable to triumph the Euros with Cristiano Ronaldo successful 2016, but England’s ‘golden generation’ of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen ne'er adjacent made it to a tourney final.

In their past large tourney -- the 2018 World Cup successful Russia -- Belgium was close. Against Japan successful the circular of 16, a thrilling last-gasp attack, involving Courtois and De Bruyne, a deceptive tally from Lukaku and a sweeping decorativeness from Nacer Chadli completed a thrilling comeback from 2-0 down. “Can you judge it?” cried 1 commentator.

In the quarterfinals against Brazil, Lukaku was compared to “a tank’” arsenic helium dropped his enarthrosis and charged forward, laying the shot disconnected to De Bruyne for a sensational and decisive goal. A bid of awesome saves from Courtois carried Belgium into the semifinals, wherever they were stopped lone by the eventual champion, France.

Romelu Lukaku celebrates arsenic Belgium beats Russia to scope the 2018 World Cup semifinals. (Lars Baron/FIFA/Getty Images)

Still, a third-place decorativeness (they bushed England successful the bronze medal match) was a magnificent accomplishment and Belgium’s players returned location to Brussels arsenic conquering heroes.

The scenes of them celebrating successful beforehand of a packed Grote Markt (Grand Place) successful Brussels bore grounds to the joyousness of the infinitesimal and the diverseness of the team. But adjacent time, they privation to beryllium lasting determination with champions’ medals astir their necks.

The Belgium squad receives a hero’s invited astatine the Grote Markt (Grand Place) successful Brussels aft returning from the 2018 World Cup with the bronze medal. (Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty Images)

Courtois knows however hard it volition beryllium again this summer. “Football is football,” helium told CNN, “It’s inactive not predictable. You cannot hide Germany, Spain, Italy, France, Holland, England -- adjacent smaller teams tin wounded you. But present is hopefully the clip to get immoderate silverware, we person a truly ambitious squad and we volition combat for it.”

Courtois is assured that the occurrence volition travel either present oregon successful the adjacent future.

“If we cannot execute it, past I'm definite that successful the adjacent years determination volition ever travel a caller procreation due to the fact that of the hard enactment that determination is successful Belgium to nutrient caller talent.”

They person each been dreaming of this infinitesimal since they archetypal kicked a shot and Lukaku knows it’s determination for the taking. “Everything depends connected the day,” helium said, “Who wants it most? But if we hole ourselves properly, if we perform, thing tin halt us.”

Published June 11, 2021.

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