Big interview: Golden generation nursed from the grassroots

Belgium boss Kris Van Der Haegen celebrates after they beat Germany in a European Women’s U19 competition in 2014 at the Roi Baudouin stadium, Brussels. Picture: David Catry/Getty Images

Belgium are currently the number one ranked side in world football, overtaking superpowers like Brazil who they eliminated from last year’s World Cup. Simply put, no country per capita is remotely producing as many top footballers as they are. So what’s their secret? By not making it about winning or even the team, but rather the individual player

At a time when Irish football is in turmoil, Belgian football is in full bloom.

Whereas 20, 30 and 40 years ago the FA Cup was hoisted by a triumvirate of Irishmen in the form of Messrs Keane, Whelan and Rice, this month that privilege belonged to a Belgian who also happened to receive the Premier League title, the same Vincent Kompany having days earlier scored the goal that essentially decided the biggest domestic league in the world.

On Wednesday in Baku, the most scrutinised and revered player on view in the Europa League final will be Eden Hazard in what is expected to be his last game with Chelsea before he joins Real Madrid like his fellow countryman Thibaut Courtois before him.

Then next Saturday in Madrid, a Liverpool side that won its way through to the Champions League final courtesy of a two-goal semi-final brace from Genk academy graduate Divock Origi will run up against a Spurs side anchored by an all-Belgian central defence of Vertoghen and Alderweireld.

And as for the national team, it’s currently number one in the Fifa world rankings, a fraction ahead of the French side that edged it in last year’s World Cup semi-finals.

So, just 10 years after being ranked 66th, how did they make their way to first?

Because, argues Kris Van Der Haegan, they put the player first. It’s not about the coach. It’s not about the team. All through the system, from as young as five, the player comes first. That’s been the secret formula. A player-first philosophy = national team first in the world.

It’s something the Belgian FA’s director of coach education will be expanding on in Limerick in three weeks’ time as one of the speakers at the iCoachKids international conference that Sport Ireland Coaching are hosting in UL.

But Van Der Haegen is also happy to spread the message to anyone who wants to listen and is open to learn. It is a philosophy that he is strikingly passionate about, not least because it’s underpinned by scientific research, which is why he took our call a couple of days ago while away in Greece with the Belgian senior national women’s team.

“When you start coaching underage football and you know little about how learning works, your automatic reflex is to think like you would have as a player – that it’s about playing games and trying to win games. And that’s what happens most of the time. ‘Okay, we have to prepare our team for the game to give us the best chance to win the game.

That’s the wrong starting point.

What he advocates is The Coaching Switch, an awakening and transformation as loud and as profound as Paul on the road to Damascus. Focus not on the team and the game but the player. Every player on your team.

“It’s really demanding, that switch,” he acknowledges. “You really do have to put in a big effort to change your whole way of thinking. To where it’s your individual relationship with a player and making individual corrections. That I’m not there for my team, I’m there for every player. I’m not there to make sure that we win the game. I’m there to make every player better.

“In an individual sport like tennis, that is the mentality of the coach. How do I make that player better, on all aspects – technical-tactical, mental, physical? And that is how it should be in children’s football. That we should have a different approach for each of our players because each player and person is different.

But that outlook is in not widespread. We certainly didn’t have it in Belgian football 20 years ago.

Their own Coaching Switch came in the wake of co-hosting Euro 2000. Never before in the history of the competition or the World Cup had a host nation failed to emerge from its pool. “A catastrophe,” says Van Der Haegen, but also an opportunity – “It’s when things are going badly that people are open to change and listening. So we started from scratch.” Including Van Der Haegen himself, being part of the review process initiated by the Belgian FA’s visionary technical director, Michel Sablon.

“I’m about the best example you’ll find of the Coaching Switch. Before 2000 I coached with the same outlook I had as a player. I had to have constant discussions with the referee. ‘What?! That wasn’t a free!’ Because my focus was on winning the game. When that’s your driver, your emotional temperature gets higher and higher.

“But when you take a step back and the result of the game isn’t what’s important, and you start observing your individual players and how they are doing at the tasks you would have discussed with them, you start looking at the team and the game in a totally different light. That the game is merely a tool, a measurement. ‘Okay, we tried something in training this week, let’s see if it works in the reality of the game.’

You don’t have to stress any more about having to win the game. And you see that the referee is a person just like yourself and the players – that they’re going to make mistakes too, so deal with it and keep focused on your own job.

As part of the 2000 review, the Belgians looked to their neighbours, the Netherlands. Both nations breathed the same air, spoke the same language, yet on one side of a border was this trail-blazing, mould-breaking football power, and on the other, a run-of-the-mill side playing a limited, unsophisticated form of football.

“We started to ask, ‘What are they doing that we don’t do?’ And the one thing we took from them was, ‘Okay, we need a system of play and a set of principles that remain for the next 10 years and we’ll evaluate it then.’

“If you look at Ajax, they have a philosophy that they stick to all the time. We needed to do the same – teach the game in a consistent way so we could play the best possible game.”

At the turn of the millennium, Belgium’s football wasn’t a lot more sophisticated than the Irish team of this decade. It was all about having a good defensive shape, a lot of people defending in the low block and then booting the ball up front for someone to run after.

“We always played with two strikers. Two strikers means running. Running into space. Running and running and running. We needed to change. To play a more possession-based football, to have creative players on the wing like the Netherlands.”

And so they switched from a predominantly 4-4-2 lineup to 4-3-3, right across the board; Van Der Heagen likes to say that from the U15 national team straight through to the senior setup, “Only the size of the shirt changes. Even if we were playing naked, I should be able to recognise our team.”

So, to produce creative players, they had to let kids – every kid – play. And get plenty touches. And dribble. From the moment they showed up at their local club’s pitch. The FA consulted with Van Der Haegen himself on the principles of learning; before he became a full-time football educator, he was a language teacher. They listened to psychologists talk about the needs and wants of children. One university recorded 1500 youth games and identified that in too many games some kids were barely getting a couple of touches a game.

“You can have the best development plans but if you don’t spread the message across the whole community of coaches, then you have a plan that might be great on paper but shit on grass. If it’s only at your desk, you don’t develop players. It must be in the mind of the coaches.

“The first two years [after the 2000 review], we organised all over the country coach education – for free – to get people on board. Every week for two months there was an evening where we would have four-hour workshops, so we could have meaningful discussion and interaction with the coaches.

To me the biggest ingredient in the success of Belgian football is the quality and education of grassroots coaches. They know exactly how to develop a player from when they are five or six years old. We have a player-focused format that I can safely say is the best in the world. It’s tailor-made football for the child.

At five and six years old, kids just play one-on-one, with two goalkeepers. Because that’s all kids that age want to do – dribble and shoot and score a goal. They don’t really have the interest or the cognitive capacity to pass. Then after a year they can progress to 2v2 and having a passing option. That is how their blitzes at that age work. Lose and you move to your left, win and you move to the right, to play someone more your own standard. Every kid gets to win, every kids gets to lose, every kid gets to play and get touches and score.

By U8 they’re playing 5v5. By U10, it’s 8v8 which they stick with for four years. It’s only at U14 that they go full on 11v11 and league tables are published. Again, it’s not about winning or the team. It’s about developing the player. Every player. Instead of halves, there are quarters. You can only sub at the end of quarters and any kid who didn’t play in the last one has to play in the following one.

“Before [2000], we used to have a lot of dropout when kids reached 15, 16. Why? Because they were always on the bench. Because the coach wanted to win. But when you are coaching these guys, don’t get beaten by the result of the game! Forget about the result and focus on the enjoyment and development of every child. Every child is important! Every child is as important as the other – from the most developed to the least developed.

Don’t be what we call a PlayStation coach who wants to decide everything for them. Let them discover the game and play freely and support them in that effort. And I’m proud to say in Belgium, we really have created an environment that is 100% player-centred.

It means that less physically-developed players can drop back to play a year younger, once they’ve been screened and certified by a doctor who can prove they’re significantly below the average weight or height.

The late developer is prized in Belgium. Kevin de Bruyne made his first underage national squad when he was 18, just like half a dozen of the current senior squad. As Van Der Haegen points out, “If we were not aware of late developers, a Kevin De Bruyne wouldn’t have come through the system.”

Kevin de Bruyne scores in the FA Cup final. The late developer is prized in Belgium, having made his first underage national squad when he was 18, like half a dozen of the current senior squad. Picture: Nick Potts
Kevin de Bruyne scores in the FA Cup final. The late developer is prized in Belgium, having made his first underage national squad when he was 18, like half a dozen of the current senior squad. Picture: Nick Potts

For several years they had him playing with a ‘future team’, mostly of lighter players born in the second half of the year.

Conversely, a more advanced player doesn’t have to abide by the old adage that they should play their own age grade. Eden Hazard didn’t play with the Belgian U17 team that failed to get out of their Euro group because he had already been elevated to the U19s. Sure, it was a shame the 17s lost in his absence – but again, player first.

Such concepts would be a hard-sell here. Van Der Haegen would know Vim Koevermans and even more so the Dutchman’s fellow countryman and successor as FAI performance director, Ruud Dokter; the pair of them sit together on Uefa’s Jira coaching panel.

He has some appreciation of the challenges Dokter encounters. Like how something like his summer-football model could soon be in tatters following the decision of the two Dublin underage leagues to return to the traditional calendar more akin to the school year. Like how ferociously competitive, win-first some of those clubs and leagues can be.

He doesn’t envy Dokter.

“The big challenge for Ireland is to get people around the table together who want to collaborate. You can sometimes get a situation where coaches can be prepared to come into a club to help make the player better and be told, ‘No, we don’t need your support, we will do it our way.’ And this is a big problem in football in general – ego. ‘We can do it on our own.’ And doors are kept closed.

“Our country and Ireland are the same. You have, what, five million people? We have only 11 million. We cannot compare to Germany or France. They are so big they can miss a lot of talent but still do well because they have so many players. Countries like ours are small. So we need collaboration.

“I have said it before – what has been done in the last 15 years in Belgium can be done by anybody – in your club, your federation, your team. Because it had nothing to do with money. We have no money. We are a small country and we have challenges because we have two different languages – the northern part speaks Dutch, the southern part, French. But it isn’t a big issue because we are used to it and we have a mindset to overcome it and work together.

But in countries like England and Ireland, there is a different sports culture, with schools football, regional leagues… We don’t have these troubles. We don’t have all these units and regional associations with their own rules. It’s easier for us because we are more united. When we make a plan, it is easy to get agreement across the board.

He can see though how England have got their act together and are overcoming some of the obstacles on their landscape. How they speak now about creating an English DNA, just as the Belgians reinventing their own a decade earlier. Van Der Haegen still has a presentation on his laptop which he gave to the English FA, upon their invitation, about eight years ago.

“They also invited coach educators from the Spanish, French and German federations to show how they developed players. And what they have now are many of the best elements from all those countries. At youth level now they are phenomenal. A big difference between them and us and the big challenge for them is that when they get to 20, 21, it can be difficult getting enough playing opportunity in club competition.”

There is another significant difference with the Belgian pathway. A 15-year-old from England and Ireland could be in the academy of a Premier League club where education is merely an add-on, though much better than it was even a decade ago. In Belgium a player of a similar age in an academy like Anderlecht’s or Standard Liege’s go to normal schools.

They only train after school hours. They’re expected to qualify with the equivalent of a Leaving Cert. Not just because 99% of them won’t stay on in top-level football, but that the 1% who do make it to the top are more educated and well-rounded, humble human beings.

“The only youngster to leave Belgium at 16 for a Premier League club and not fail has been [Adnan] Januzaj [formerly Manchester United, now Real Sociedad]. Others have gone because agents and clubs have offered them more money but we can show that statistic.

“We want them to keep them to help develop them and that they get an education and still play in the Belgian league. Then when you have 200 games in senior competition, or even 75 or so like a Lukaku, you can leave for the Premier League and are prepared in a much better way to succeed there. You are an adult. You have been through that difficult period of adolescence while still having had the comfort of being near home. You are more than ready.”

He’s mindful that Belgium won’t always be number one in the world. As he puts it, just as Barcelona without Messi will be another Barcelona, Belgium won’t always have a Hazard. But just as there was another golden generation of Irish rugby player post-O’Gara and O’Driscoll,

Belgium won’t sink to 2000-like depths after the likes of Kompany or even Hazard retire.

In 10 years’ time will we be number one in the Fifa world rankings? Realistically, most likely no. But our ambition is to remain in the top 10. And we have the coaches at the grassroots to do that and the buy-in from the academies.

In remembering that they’re coaching kids, they keep turning out top adult players.

- Kris Van Der Haegen will be speaking at the iCoachKids third international conference on June 14-15 hosted by Sport Ireland Coaching in the University of Limerick. See ickinternationalconference.com for more

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