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It is not often that a politician is so comprehensively slapped down by a sportsman. After winning municipal elections in the Belgian city of Antwerp in 2012, Bart De Wever, the head of the Flemish NVA, a rightwing party that advocates the break-up of Belgium, told his followers: “Antwerp is for everyone, but this evening it is especially for us.”
The riposte came swiftly from Vincent Kompany, totemic captain of Belgium’s national football team, the Red Devils, after they beat Scotland that same week. “Belgium belongs to everybody,” Kompany said in a tweet. “But this evening it especially belongs to us.”
The rise of Flemish separatism is just one of the fundamental challenges confronting Belgium, where confidence in the country’s institutions has been sorely tested by episodes such as the more than 500 days it endured without a central government in 2010-11, intelligence failings linked to the March terrorist attacks in Brussels and, most recently, weeks of strikes by prison workers. The national football team, however, is one institution in which a divided nation has undivided faith.
A few facts serve to show the scale of its achievement: The team is currently ranked 2nd in the world by Fifa after reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and is a contender to win the European Championships that began last week in France. Its first match is against Italy on Monday evening.
In terms of talent, Belgium had more players per capita in England’s Premier League — 19 — this season than any other continental European nation. They included stars such as Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard, winner of last year’s player of the year award, Everton’s powerful striker Romelu Lukaku, Manchester City’s silky midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini. Three Belgium internationals play for Tottenham Hotspur.
The ethnically diverse squad is a beacon of hope in a country that has come under intense criticism for its failings at integration.
“The story of our national team is the story of our country, and of the future of our country,” says Rachid Madrane, minister for sport for the French-speaking part of Belgium. “It shows that diversity is a strength.”
Dries Bervoet, political correspondent at Flemish daily De Tijd, cites a joke doing the rounds: whereas normally the national team simply has to embody the footballing hopes of a country, Belgium’s now “has to save the country”.
Up until 2014, country’s most recent real moment of footballing glory had been a run to the semi-finals of the 1986 World Cup, followed by twenty years in the doldrums. The nadir came in the Euro 2000 tournament, when Belgium, a host nation, was quickly eliminated.
So what accounts for the turnround?
The oft-told story is that a small band of executives at Belgium’s national football association came together after the disappointment of the 2000 tournament to initiate a grassroots revolution in the training of young footballers — one that is now bearing glorious fruit.
Their plan, known as Vision 2000, borrowed liberally from the youth programme and training philosophy of Spanish champions Barcelona. Key ingredients included that all age groups should be drilled in the same formation (4-3-3) and that practice games should focus on making players dribble with the ball to create space. In tandem, Belgium established eight regional centres of excellence to bring together the most talented players.
“I’m not sure we invented anything,” David Delferière, secretary-general of the Association des Clubs Francophones de Football, told the Financial Times, noting that one of the key innovations was simply to toughen and modernise the training of the football coaches themselves. Another change was to prepare the best young players for international competition several years earlier than had been done in the past.
As always with Belgium, an apparently simple picture is actually part of a more complex puzzle.
For François Colin, sports columnist for Belgium’s De Standaard, the idea that Vision 2000 was the decisive breakthrough is “rubbish.”
He plots a different course for the fall and rise of Belgian football. It is one that starts with the famous Bosman ruling in 1995 that liberalised the EU transfer market by allowing players to jump to another club at the end of their contract without a transfer fee. Mr Colin argues that this killed off the motivation for clubs to develop young talent since it was so easy for them to leave. The incentive returned only in the early 2000s as the cost of talent soared, forcing Belgian clubs to produce homegrown talent.
There is also an international dimension to Belgium’s success story. A good proportion of the country’s top stars spent their formative years abroad — Eden Hazard at Lille, for example, or Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen and Mousa Dembélé in the Netherlands. For a small country at the heart of Europe, that reflects a willingness to cross borders to seek out the best opportunities.
The rise of Belgian football is curious in other ways. In a country that is often accused of having an overly complicated, multi-layered system of government, football is an example of a policy that has been entirely devolved to the level of the country’s different linguistic communities, and that is working well.
According to Philippe Muyters, Flanders’ minister for sport, “although there is good understanding between the ministers of sports of the different language communities, it gives us the chance to stress different priorities.”
My Muytens, an NVA politician, credits subsidies for youth development in Flanders with creating “a mind shift in our sport clubs.” League clubs “started to realise that investing in young talents might be more effective than merely buying expensive foreign players,” he says.
For Mr Delferière, it is impossible to identify a precise formula. “Those people who say football is a science, the proof that it isn’t is the  World Cup,” he says. “If football was really a science, we would have won it.”