After hosting the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, Belgium journey to Korea to embark on their first ever FIFA U-17 World Cup. Bob Browaeys's Diablotins may be newcomers on the global stage, but their strength at this level shone through against the cream of the continent this May, signalling a return to form the senior side would do well to imitate after disappearing from the horizon since the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan TM. With nine players culled from the highly-respected academy of Belgian vice-champions Racing Genk - including captain Dimitri Daeseleire - Browaeys was able to count upon a tight, well-oiled unit, whose motivation to succeed on home soil compensated for the lack of individual stars.
"What I saw were players who are very talented and technically very good," commented Spain coach Juan Santisteban, after his charges eventually saw off the Belgians in a penalty shoot-out at the end of their semi-final contest. That compliment will have been music to the ears of the Belgian FA (URBSFA), who since 2002 have invested much time, money and effort into developing budding home-grown talent. Indeed, since the creation of the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, Belgium have got past the qualifiers on two other occasions, in 2002/03 and 2003/04. The 2007 edition therefore represented the confirmation of an upward trend as the Diablotins emerged as the surprise-package of the tournament. Operating a classic 4-4-2 formation, and spurred on by the efforts of De Pauw, Ringoot, Hazard and Kis in particular, Belgium made waves despite having played no competitive matches in the lead-up.
Beaten in two warm-up games by England and Turkey, torn apart by the Spaniards and consigned to defeat by Korea Republic, Belgium were far from favourites as they kicked off the opening encounter with their Dutch neighbours. Despite that, De Pauw and tournament revelation Hazard gave them the lead on two separate occasions, only for the Netherlands to equalise three minutes before the end. It was a frustrating climax for the hosts, but there were more positive signs in their next outing, an impressive 1-1 draw with England. De Ringoot was on target as the inexperienced Belgians persuaded coach Browaeys his team were on the right track, and the apotheosis came three days later against Iceland.
Facing the side that knocked out reigning champions Russia in the Elite round, the Diablotins were on fire as they struck four goals in the space of 20 second-half minutes, with Racing Genk trainee Kevin Kis hitting two of them. That gave them five points in total and second place in the group behind England, but more importantly it set up a historic semi-final meeting with the same fearsome Spanish side who had put them to the sword in a 6-1 friendly defeat in autumn 2006. Whatever gulf that existed in class, it was neutralised by the Belgians' positive approach, and it was the home side who opened the scoring on 63 minutes thanks to Rochela's own-goal. At that point, Spain had been playing with ten men for just over ten minutes and, despite having dominated the first period, looked in danger of being eliminated. That was until rising star Krkic drew the sides level in the 72nd minute. Ultimately, it took penalties to separate the sides and, on their eighth spot-kick, Belgium saw the match slip from their grasp. Difficult to swallow, perhaps, but the hosts had done enough to book their ticket for Korea.
Appointed in the summer of 2006, Bob Browaeys has carried on the good work begun by Eric d'Abrams in 2003. The 38-year-old former goalkeeper, who notably lined out for legendary Belgian side S.V. Waregem, has been coaching for the URBSFA since 1999, though has yet to take charge of a professional outfit. Instead, he is a force to be reckoned with in the youth game, having coached his country's U-15 and U-16 teams before taking over the U-17s, with whom he has already written a glorious page in the history of Belgian football.
Dimitri Daeseleire remains the undisputed leader of the side on and off the pitch, but few would dispute that the key to the Diablotins' success in May was Eden Hazard. With much-vaunted talent Maurizio Aquino failing to inspire after returning from a serious injury, the Lille player left his stamp on the tournament in the very first match, scoring against the Netherlands, and it was he who provoked Spain's Rochela to score an own-goal in the semi-final. A midfielder blessed with incredible technique, he is expected to turn heads in Korea and his coach is in no doubt about the youngster's attributes. "He showed real class, especially in his forward runs with the ball at his feet," noted Browaeys. "He won us a lot of fouls because he's so hard to contain. Now he needs to work on his defensive duties when we lose the ball and learn when to keep things simple. He's an immense talent and I'm counting on him."
What they said...
"I'm proud of my players' performance. We met our main target, which was to qualify for the World Cup, and we played better than I expected. With a little patience, the future looks very bright." Bob Browaeys, Belgium coach
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