President Biden shores up allied support before heading to Geneva for Putin summ

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President Biden shores up allied support before heading to Geneva for Putin summ
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President Biden shores up allied support before heading to Geneva for Putin summit

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It’s one of the greatest achievements in the world of sport: just how on earth did one of the smaller countries assemble the top-ranked team in the most popular game on the planet?

Belgium, a country of roughly 11 million people, wedged between France and Germany in Western Europe and dwarfed by the land mass and population size of those neighbors, first made it to the top of the FIFA rankings in 2015 and has remained firmly on the perch ever since 2018.

In the next 18 months, Belgium is hoping for a major trophy to validate their dominance on the world stage, but even without a title run at the European Championship or the 2022 World Cup, their team of international superstars must still be the envy of football administrators everywhere. And the Red Devils aren’t planning on going anywhere.

The journey began from the pit of despair, Belgium’s joy of co-hosting the 2000 European Championship ended in humiliation as they were bundled out in the group stage of the competition. Just nine days after thousands of white balloons had been released in celebration to kick off the tournament at the King Baudouin Stadium, the bubble had been emphatically burst inside the same arena.

A sun-dappled evening in Brussels finished in the gloom of a 2-0 defeat by Turkey, two goals from Hakan Sükür -- the first of which will have given goalkeeper Filip de Wilde nightmares -- compelled senior figures in the Belgian Football Association to conduct a root and branch review of their entire football strategy.

Luc Nilisof Belgium reacts as his country are knocked out of Euro 2000, prompting the Belgian FA into a complete overhaul. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)

A Belgium fan looks dejected as the national team is knocked out of the group stages at Euro 2000. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)

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 change the world game.

Not everything that Michel Sablon writes down goes to plan. At Italia 90, Sablon was part of Belgium’s coaching staff, and a couple of minutes before the end of extra time in their last-16 match against England, he compiled a list of the penalty-takers. He had just finished scribbling the names when David Platt, in one of those iconic World Cup moments, spectacularly hooked the ball past Michel Preud’homme. “A great goal by Platt. But I was so disappointed,” Sablon says. “I threw the list away.”

A little more than a decade later Sablon started with another blank piece of paper, this time with the intention of revolutionising Belgian football in his role as the federation’s new technical director. At its headquarters in Brussels, Sablon proudly hands over a copy of the original blueprint, dated September 2006 and titled “La vision de formation de l’URBSFA”. He smiles when asked whether going to this summer’s World Cup finals as fifth favourites was what he had in mind. “For sure, no”.

Belgium’s emergence as one of the strongest nations in world football has exceeded all expectations. A country with a population of only 11m, with just 34 professional clubs competing across two leagues, has produced – and there are no reservations in Belgium about using this term because it is widely accepted as the only description befitting of their talent pool – a golden generation of footballers.

Marc Wilmots’ 23-man squad for the World Cup is replete with stellar names, players who have changed hands for hundreds of millions of pounds and in the majority of cases belong toPremier League clubs. It is also a group that could stay together for years to come – all but six are aged 27 and under. Daniel van Buyten, the Bayern Munich defender, is the only player in his 30s. “It’s excellent,” Sablon says. “But when those guys come together in one group, I think it’s a little bit lucky also.”

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