In scoring the two goals that sank Croatia on Friday and took Belgium through to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, Romelu Lukaku set the seal on the renewed love affair between Les Diables Rouges and a nation now united as one behind them.
The Everton striker is also a symbol of the success being enjoyed by the wave of Belgian ex-pats currently plying their trade in the English Premier League, a crucial factor in Belgium’s imperious qualifying campaign.
Out of all the foreign nations represented in the Premier League, only Spain has a larger contingent of players than Belgium’s 18, and the effect that playing in the English top flight has had on Marc Wilmots’ charges echoes the positive influence that Serie A once had on France’s national team.
Crowned world champions in 1998 and the kings of Europe two years later, the French reaped the benefits of having many of their top players exiled in the land of calcio, among them their indefatigable skipper Didier Deschamps. In running out for Italy’s leading clubs, they developed the skills and attributes that allowed them to achieve continental and global dominance.
A decade and a half later the Belgians are making the most of a similar template, one that has transformed their fortunes. In speaking of “the great leap forward” his team has taken, coach Wilmots has acknowledged the galvanising effect that appearing in the English elite has had on his increasingly voracious Red Devils.
“We’ve matured. Everyone’s playing in England and that’s allowed us to set our sights high,” said Marouane Fellaini, the ex-Standard Liege man who has become one of the leaders of Belgium’s golden generation and recently continued his rapid rise to prominence by signing for Manchester United.
The bushy-haired midfielder’s ascent has been mirrored by Belgium’s meteoric rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. A lowly 54th two years ago, they now lie sixth, a climb inspired by their English legion.
Wilmots is the custodian of a crown whose jewels are all first-choice players with some of England’s leading sides. Captain Vincent Kompany is one of the first names on the teamsheet at Manchester City, as are Eden Hazard at Chelsea, Simon Mignolet at Liverpool, Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen at Tottenham, Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas at Everton, Christian Benteke at Aston Villa and Fellaini at Manchester United.
While Thomas Vermaelen, Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli find themselves on the bench more often than not at Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham respectively, they will be striving to impress their club coaches over the next few months and remain in Wilmots’ plans for Brazil.
“All the players who have gone abroad have progressed and the national team as a whole is reaping the rewards,” said the Belgium boss, delighted at the determination of his players to compete at the highest level week in week out.
An assistant to his predecessor Georges Leekens, who resigned the post last year, former international Wilmots has restored a sense of desire and pride to a side that had been languishing in the doldrums for five years. Loved by his troops, acclaimed by the media and idolised by the fans, the one-time striker has capitalised on the progress made by his Premier League-based players since replacing Leekens, firstly as caretaker and then on a permanent basis.
And if Wilmots has his way, there could soon be yet another addition to his high-flying Premier League jet set, with Manchester United’s 18-year-old sensation Adnan Januzaj, who was born in Belgium to Albanian-Kosovan parents, currently giving thought to where his international future lies.
Aware of the advantages of a career in the Premier League, Lukaku turned down Chelsea’s proposal of a loan to another league and insisted on staying in England instead, plumping for a season-long move to the Toffees.
The former Anderlecht prodigy seems to have made a wise choice too, making a scintillating start to life at his club and continuing the feel-good factor by firing the Belgians to Brazil with his first goals in a competitive fixture. What awaits him and his team-mates in the world finals could be the stuff of dreams.