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Belgium rebuilt its whole soccer system to shape its World Cup team

SAO PAULO, Brazil — When Belgium was knocked out four games into the 2002 World Cup, it looked more like an ending than a beginning.

And it was since it marked the conclusion of the country’s Golden Generation, a period that saw Belgium qualify for six consecutive World Cups and make it to finals of the European Championships.

But it also marked a new beginning. Because out of the ashes sprang a new, potentially better national team that could carry Belgium beyond the second round of a World Cup this summer for just the second time in the country’s history.

Belgium’s national soccer federation borrowed liberally from the philosophies and training methods of the Netherlands and France, focused heavily on development, built a new national training center and taught its youth teams to play the same style.

The ideas weren’t always popular but they were effective, and now that investment is beginning to pay off with the young team Belgium has sent to Brazil marking the start of what the country hopes will be a second Golden Generation.

“This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come. They’re still young and can improve a lot,” Belgium Coach Marc Wilmots told reporters. “However, we have to be realistic and give them time.”

Wilmots retired from the national team at the end of the first golden era in 2002, only return to at the start of second one as coach.

Time definitely appears to be on Belgium’s side because its 11 starters average less than 25 years of age. And none of the team’s four brightest stars - - goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and forwards Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku - are older than 23.

That, more than anything, validates the blueprint Michel Sablon drew up when he took over as Belgium’s technical director at a time when the national program needed an overhaul.

A major turning point in that turnaround, Sablon told London’s Guardian newspaper, was an extensive University of Louvain study of youth football the federation commissioned. Among the findings was that youth coaches placed too much emphasis on winning over development, so Sablon switched those priorities around.

He also dictated that at every national age-group level teams play a high-tempo 4-3-3 system, which drew resistance from his bosses in the federations and from youth coaches.

But it wasn’t long before he was proved right.

In 2007, a stellar team led by Hazard and Christian Benteke reached the semifinals of Europe’s U-17 championships. No Belgium team had ever done that before.

A year later a slightly older Belgium team made it to the semifinals of the Olympic Games.

From there the players went their separate ways, with all 23 men on the World Cup roster playing club soccer outside Belgium, the majority in the English Premier League. They all sprang from the same foundation, though, which Hazard says is key.

“When we do get together, it is important we have all been immersed in the same football culture,” he told Esquire magazine last year. “In England, it is one country and pretty much one style of football, very intense, generally high-tempo, so we do share that. There are others who come in from (Spain’s) La Liga or elsewhere, really good players who bring different things, but the players in England do share something, I think.”

Even without the 23-year-old Benteke, who ruptured an Achilles’ tendon this spring and is out of the World Cup, Belgium is clearly the class of its group in Brazil and should have no trouble reaching the second round. And with a talented core that stretches from front to back - from Hazard through midfielder Marouane Fellaini to central defender Vincent Kompany to Courtois - Belgium could go quite a bit further.

That would make history, of course, because the only other time Belgium won a game beyond the group stage was in 1986 when it reached the semifinals.

“If everyone continues to think of the collective, everything will go well,” Wilmots told the soccer monthly Fourfourtwo.

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