A Belgium fan looks dejected as the national team is knocked out of the group stages at Euro 2000. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)
- 24th, June 2021 (11 months ago)
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Michel Sablon was the national team’s technical director at the time. He said the organization as tournament hosts was a “big success,” yet the performance on the field was anything but. “It was not good for the players, not good for the clubs, not good for the national team,” he told CNN. “It really was the bottom.”
As it happens, Euro 2000 marked a turning point for two of the teams in action. Germany’s equally disastrous group-stage departure, featuring a rare defeat to England, prompted a thorough review of their football philosophy. It was a rebirth that would yield a World Cup victory 14 years later and Belgium was about to embark on something similar.
Sablon didn’t waste much time, working to identify a new vision for football in their country. “We did it on a Saturday and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We started from scratch with a white piece of paper and we developed the whole thing.”
Nothing was left to chance. Sablon explained how they recruited four universities to help research the workload of youth players in either five-a-side or eight-a-side games.
No detail was too small; for example, was nine o’clock on a Sunday morning really the best time for the kids to play? They analyzed data from 1,500 youth games, enlisted the cooperation of 70 coaches at all levels of the game and made 120 presentations to the clubs that took almost a year.
The traditional, but rigid, 4-4-2 formation was discarded in favor of a more flexible and attacking 4-3-3 line-up, which forced individual players to take more responsibility with the ball.
It was an ambitious plan, but the modest size of Belgium’s football program might have been a help, rather than a hindrance.
With barely two dozen professional clubs in the country, it was easier to get everybody singing from the same song sheet, and as a country without a history of major achievements, there was perhaps more freedom to try and less pressure for an immediate return on investment.
Every club in the country bought into it. Inevitably, there were teething problems, but Sablon believed that if they could hold their nerve, they’d be okay.
“I remember that the first game we did it with was the Under-17 team against France. We lost 7-1 and then the reaction came, of course. But a year later, in the same age category, we dominated France and beat them.”
It took time, he recalled, but in hindsight the only difficult thing was deciding to embark on the journey in the first place.
Around this time, budding young players like Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were just eight, 10 and 10 years old respectively. Nobody could have possibly known it then, but they and many other players of their generation would soon be launched on a career trajectory that would ch ange the world game.
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