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Belgium: From Footballing Minnow to Powerhouse

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Take a minute to think about the top countries in international football. Brazil comes to mind, with their record-breaking five World Cup titles. Italy, Germany, France or Argentina are others. More recently, Spain have pushed themselves to the forefront of international football. However, looking at the current FIFA World Rankings, a footballing minnow appears in first position: Belgium.

The Rise to Power

Just six years ago, in 2009, Belgium slipped down to 66th – their worst-ever position. In fact, since the introduction of the world rankings in December 1992, Belgium’s best position was in 2003, when they sat in 16th place. Nowadays, Belgium’s top talents like Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen grace the pitch week in, week out, often being the star performers in the world’s best teams. So what has sparked this turnaround?

After the European Championships of 2000, which Belgium co-hosted, Michel Sablon was appointed the new Technical Director of the Belgian Football Association. Together with his assistants he developed a blueprint for a reformation of Belgian football, which was finalized in 2006. Aided by the Championships, the Belgian Football Association had by then created funds they were eager to spend – mainly on youth development.

At the core of Belgium’s new footballing project was a new football center in Tubize with state-of-the-art facilities, and the introduction of eight sports-based schools. These new establishments enabled players to receive twice the amount of training after school. In addition, the Belgian F.A. decided to offer entry-level coaching for free all over the country, which caused a tenfold increase in enrolments. This way, the country now had a new wave of young, aspiring coaches to build on.

On the pitch, Belgium’s new football directors sought inspiration from Europe’s most technical sides like Ajax and Barcelona, and encouraged a change of formation. Instead of continuing to play a counter-attacking 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 system, they switched to a more technical 4-3-3.

“It was a massive shift, but we believed 4-3-3, at that moment, was the strongest learning environment for our players”, said Bob Browaeys, a youth coach heavily involved in the change of philosophy. Youth academies all over the continent were now encouraged to develop their players’ technical abilities, as this was key to the redevelopment. In fact, Anderlecht, the most successful club in Belgium, forbid the art of tackling up until the under-21 level to form a new generation of technical, intelligent footballers.

This redevelopment was greatly aided by a cooperation with the University of Louvain, who agreed to conduct extensive research on Belgian youth football games. As part of the agreement, the University filmed and scientifically analyzed more than 1500 matches from different age groups to help coaches recognize their players’ weaknesses. Furthermore, with the help of scientists, youth coaches were able to create training methods designed to train the players’ cognitive abilities. Through continuous repetition of in-game situations, players internalize solutions to problems they are confronted with during games. Thus, they can apply the patterns they learn in training sessions without thinking about it.

“If they start to think, they will struggle to complete a task. Thinking will bring on stress, which may block the action”, says Michel Bruyninckx, a youth coach. “Over time, through repetition, the brain will bundle different elements and add them to long-term memory”, he added.

Delving deeper into the mental side of the game, the Belgian Football Association placed a large emphasis on education off the pitch. Whilst footballing progression was at the core of the blueprint, it was ensured that each player had a solid educational base off the pitch. Of all academy players, only a fraction would go on to become professional, so having an educational background is very important. In fact, in Belgium’s eight new sports-based schools, players with insufficient grades would not be permitted to join trainings and matches. This measure places an additional emphasis on teamwork, as teammates need to work together to make sure friends struggling in school can keep playing football.

The Business Perspective

As we can see, Michel Sablon’s blueprint has worked wonders for Belgian football. But what can businesses learn from this?

First and foremost, the Belgian F.A. teaches businesses that if things aren’t going well, it may be best to change strategy.

“Some people would shoot me of course. They said ‘we play European Championships and you pay more attention to the playing system than to be qualified’”, Michel Sablon responded when asked about the sudden systematic change by reporters. However, it is exactly this intricate attention to detail that has created the base of today’s success. Having a clear strategy at the core of a company helps everyone involved, but only if it is up-to-date and capable of success. Thus, it is most necessary that every once in a while, the heads of a company regroup to discuss a company’s strategy.

Next, the rise of the Belgian national football team shows the importance of teamwork in a workplace. In today’s finance-driven business environment, the value of teamwork is often overlooked in order to find the one outstanding performer. As clichéd as it sounds, the team is only as good as its worst performer. This saying is often drilled into aspiring youngsters in academies to keep their ego at bay, and it’s completely true. However, it is not just the case for youngsters that lack of cooperation can impede one’s performances. Businesses can definitely take a leaf out of Belgian football’s book regarding teamwork. If employees of businesses cooperated as much as Belgium’s up-and-coming footballers do in day-to-day work, many problems could be conquered quicker and weaknesses overcome. Everybody has weaknesses, but in a team these deficiencies can be compensated for and worked on.

Lastly, the example of Belgian football clearly shows the value and importance of training. Through scientifically based training methods, Belgium’s coaches have managed to form a new generation of players suitable for the modern game. The importance of training players or employees, regardless of profession, cannot be understated. Most businesses spend countless hours and vast resources in order to train their employees. Of course, training doesn’t always warrant success – you are unlikely to form an introvert into a superstar salesman – but these examples proves to businesses that the funds they invest are in no way wasted.

– Cedric Groebsch

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