Heading into the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying competition as outsiders, Belgium are hoping their exciting crop of youngsters can bed down with some experienced mainstays and make an instant impact on the international scene.
Intent on rebuilding the side and reviving their fortunes, new national coach George Leekens has said he wants Les Diables Rouges to adopt the traditional Belgian style once more. Nicknamed Long Couteau (Long Knife), Leekens sees youth as central to that ambition and has named six players born in or after 1989 in his squad for the upcoming Group A games against Germany and Turkey, his first official outings since taking over from Dick Advocaat.
Absent from major international finals since the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, Belgium’s hopes of making it to Poland and Ukraine in two years time will depend to a large extent on the ability of their starlets to repay Leekens’ faith.
And with old hands such as Daniel van Buyten, Timmy Simmons and Thomas Vermaelen around to guide them, and the likes of Steven Defour, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas and Eden Hazard already blazing a trail, the brave new breed could be the key to Belgium’s return to the big time.
As Leekens’ prepares his revamped side for their vital double-header, FIFA.com runs the rule over five of the country’s brightest hopes.
Romelu Lukaku (Anderlecht)
The Anderlecht prodigy was only 16 when he was capped by his country for the first time in March, another high point in a season he ended as the Jupiler League’s top scorer. Having since turned 17 and been identified by Leekens as his leading striker, Lukaku is now readying himself for the task of becoming the nation’s saviour. Dubbed the "new Ronaldo" by the Belgian press and watched by scouts from Europe’s top clubs week in week out, the teenage striker of Congolese extraction is the complete package. Unusually strong for his age and mature and intelligent with it, he is also a fine dribbler and powerful in the air. Although still at school, Lukaku has so far handled his new-found fame with admirable ease and looks better equipped than anyone to take Belgium back to the European and global elite.
Kevin de Bruyne (Genk)
Though only 22, the brilliant Standard Liege schemer Steven Defour would already appear to have a successor in Kevin de Bruyne. The 19-year-old protégé is working wonders under Franky Vercauteren at Genk and has been in prime goalscoring form at the start of the new season. The Limburgers’ dominant position at the top of the Belgian championship is partly down to their prize asset, who joined the club’s youth academy five years ago. A permanent fixture in the national U-19 and U-21 sides, De Bruyne could miss out on Belgium’s opening UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers because of back problems. A starter in his maiden international outing against Finland in August, the gifted and speedy forward can operate down the middle and out wide on the right. "I’m more of an attacking player than Steven, but he is a much better defender than me," says the heir to Dufour’s throne. Unlike Lukaku, the Genk favourite has left his schooldays behind him to concentrate on a career that ought to take him to the summit of the European game.
Christian Benteke (KV Mechelen)
It was under Leekens’ tutelage at Kortrijk that the Kinshasa-born striker, then on loan from Standard, burst onto the national scene. "The national coach knows all about me and I knew that could well work in my favour," said the 19-year-old after receiving his maiden international call-up for the May friendly with Bulgaria. The former Standard youth product struck nine goals for Kortrijk, a return that justified the 2008 and 2009 league champions’ decision to lure him away from Genk with a three-year contract. "Everything happens so quickly in football," said Benteke, who has just joined Mechelen on loan. "A year ago I was demoted to the Standard B team but since then I’ve had the chance to show what I can do."
Toby Alderweireld (Ajax Amsterdam)
In assessing players the main criterion for Leekens is natural talent. "He probably isn’t quite there yet, but then again he’s only got one season of first division football under his belt," he said of Alderweireld, who has just completed his first term in the Eredivisie. Following in the footsteps of Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen, the central defender left Germinal Beerschot for the Amsterdam giants in August 2004. Much admired by Leekens, who called him up for the Bulgaria friendly, the baby-faced central defender already has nine caps to his name.
Jelle Vossen (Genk)
A team-mate of De Bruyne’s for club and country, Vossen has already struck seven goals in five Jupiler League games this season. Long since tipped as a future star, the thoroughbred Vossen has come on in leaps and bounds in recent months. Loaned out to Cercle Bruges last term, the Genk youth academy graduate went on to boost his self-confidence by scoring six goals. He made his Belgium debut in May 2009 under Franky Vercauteren, who is now getting the very best out of him at Genk, so much so in fact that Leekens could well hand Vossen a starting place ahead of Lukaku for Friday’s meeting with Germany in Brussels.