While the Belgians have shown no shortage of potential in recent times, Leekens knows the best is yet to come from his ambitious young squad and stresses the need for patience. “We have the tools to succeed in the future, if not now,” he said.
Belgium are less than ideally placed going into their home tie against Kazakhstan and final away trip to already-qualified Germany. The Red Devils have only a slim chance of qualifying for Poland/Ukraine, but Leekens believes the future of his talented young side does not hinge on the next two games. “We won’t change the way we prepare for these two matches,” he said. “We have to beat Kazakhstan and hope Germany get a result in Turkey, which won’t be easy.”
A string of disappointing home results, including a 1-0 defeat by Germany, a 1-1 stalemate against Turkey and a 4-4 draw with Turkey, is one of the reasons Belgium’s fate is no longer in their own hands. “I’m not frustrated,” said former international defender Leekens, who returned for a second spell in charge of Belgium in May 2010, having previously managed the side between 1997 and 1999. “We’ve dropped points because of inexperience. We still lack the maturity to control certain games, which you have to do when you play at a high level.”
With hugely gifted young players such as Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to call upon, Belgium currently have one of the richest talent pools in their history. A large number of Belgian internationals now play for major European clubs, which Leekens feels can only benefit the national team. “Belgian players have grown in stature,” he said. “In the past, our players gained experience with the national team and put it to use at club level. Now it’s the other way around.”
An unprecedented 14 Belgian players are competing in this season’s UEFA Champions League, and that has played no small part in restoring a sense of pride among the fans. “We are very good ambassadors for the country,” said Leekens, who succeeded Dick Advocaat as coach. “The fans have shown renewed appreciation for us over the past year. People are starting to enjoy supporting us again and it’s an honour for me to be in charge of this team.”
After eighteen months in the job, the experienced coach is upbeat about his side’s recent progress. “In terms of our football and image, we’ve really made big strides forward since the start of the qualifying campaign,” he said.
“We’ve climbed 30 places in the world rankings and there’s a new sense of confidence among the fans,” Leekens added. “There’s much stiffer competition for places, the atmosphere among the squad is great and the players are once again proud to play for the national team. We haven’t lost in a year and we play as a unit. So yes, I think it’s been a very good year.”
Leekens, who has managed 12 different club sides in his career, knows there is still room for improvement. “The players know there’s still a lot of work to do,” he said. “Next time around, there will be a smaller margin for error. We lose concentration too easily and we sometimes try to play too much football.”
“We need to be more clinical too,” Leekens continued. “To reach the World Cup, talent and technique will not be enough on their own. We’re building a team and that’s not something you can do in just a few months. We’re growing and we need to learn from these existing problems. Once we’ve ironed everything out, this team will be great.”
Belgium are without the suspended pair of Nicolas Lombaerts and Marouane Fallaini for the visit of Kazakhstan, and will need to avoid making the same mistakes that saw them held to a 1-1 draw against Azerbaijan in their last outing. If Leekens’ men fail to win, they will travel to Germany with only pride to play for.
Leekens believes the current crop are keen to step up to the challenge and write their own chapter in history, adding: “They’re fed up with hearing about the past”. A victory in their penultimate UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier on Friday would keep them firmly in the present.