Belgium are now ranked sixth in the world - 11 places higher than England
To anybody of a certain vintage, the phrase “Here come the Belgians” conjures images of inter-European ribaldry, incessant laughter and people dressed in very large suits falling over.
Of course, recent revelations mean we probably won’t be seeing such clips too often again.
Or indeed ever.
But while the pictures may be consigned to history, the key phrase is gradually being reclaimed.
Because, on the football pitch, the Belgians are emerging as a force once more.
While England’s hopes of World Cup qualifications were taken down to the last match, Belgium could host a party in their final home game against Wales having already secured their berth in Brazil.
Two goals from Romelu Lukaku earned a 2-1 triumph in Croatia last Friday that ended any lingering doubts the Red Devils would not be at next summer’s jamboree.
Lukaku, on a season-long loan at Everton, is one of an increasing number of Belgians plying their trade in the Premier League.
Merseyside knows this well. Goodison is also home to Kevin Mirallas and only recently waved goodbye to Marouane Fellaini, while across Stanley Park the Kop have been warming to the endeavours of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Elsewhere, Tottenham Hotspur have Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele and Nacer Chadli, Thomas Vermaelen is at Arsenal, Aston Villa rely on striker Christian Benteke while Chelsea can boast Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne.
All bar Vermaelen are aged 26 or under, still with room to improve and approaching their prime.
The entire population of Belgium numbers only a touch more than 11 million.
By comparison, the urban area of London surpasses that total, with England home to 53 million people.
So how are the Belgians able to manage above their weight?
Simply, they acted when things started to go wrong.
Belgium had qualified for six successive World Cups – the highlight being reaching the semi-finals in 1986 – but failed to qualify in 2006 and 2010, and were last seen at the European Championships in 2000 when they were joint hosts.
The days of Enzo Scifo, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Jan Ceulemans and Eric Gerets were long gone.
And having slipped to 71st in the rankings in 2007 behind the likes of Panama, Mali, Finland and Iran, the Belgian FA called in the country’s leading clubs and thrashed out a masterplan. They worked out the national team’s success was linked to that of their club teams.
And having persuaded those domestic sides to play an identical 4-3-3 formation throughout their youth teams, so the fruits of that approach are now being picked.
Belgium are now ranked sixth in the world – 11 places higher than England.
With the Football Association facing up to similar problems concerning the development of youngsters – particularly in light of recent evidence it is proving harder than ever due to the influx of foreigners – the Belgian model gives serious food for thought.
But could the FA ever tempt the Premier League’s leading teams to play the same formation at underage level in the hope of bringing through new players? Don’t hold your breath.
Mersey pride at England’s display
MOST football fans in the city of Liverpool, we are told, couldn’t care less about the England national team.
So there was a certain paradox in watching three Merseysiders this week secure the Three Lions a place in next summer’s World Cup.
Kirkby-born Leighton Baines, a star performer, crossed for Croxteth’s Wayne Rooney to head the first, before skipper Steven Gerrard of Huyton barged through to seal victory over Poland.
(Technically, Kirkby and Huyton are in Knowsley so their residents are not Scousers, but that’s another argument entirely).
Everton and Liverpool fans just want to see their players return fit from international duty – witness what happened to Darron Gibson this week.
But there must have been a pang of pride among locals at the country’s reliance on Scouse talent, not least with Ross Barkley among those waiting in the wings.
Kudos, too, to Roy Hodgson. The man regarded in these parts for his avian attributes turned heads 270 degrees (see what I did there) with his adventurous approach to England’s two crucial qualifiers and willingness to show faith in younger players such as Andros Townsend and Daniel Sturridge.
It paid off. Now Hodgson will get on the blower to ship in some industrial strength cotton wool in which to wrap all his players before June next year.
Big games in our region but do you even know?
WHICH global sporting event starts in nine days and will host games in various locations across the north west?
A round of applause to anyone who said the Rugby League World Cup.
But there’s no disgrace in not knowing the answer. After all, outside of the die-hards, it would be very easy to not notice the tournament was taking place.
Such is the problem – and has indeed been the problem for many, many years – with rugby league and its authorities, particularly in this country.
Don’t forget, these are the kind of people who thought a great way to promote Super League was to plaster images on the side of trucks after striking a sponsorship deal with Eddie Stobart that earned the league precisely no pounds.
At least they pulled the plug less than 12 months into a supposed three-year deal.
The World Cup begins in Cardiff on Saturday week. The mighty Australians will be in St Helens on November 2 while Warrington will host New Zealand as well as a quarter-final later in the competition.
These two countries contested a tremendous final five years ago and represent the pinnacle of the sport.
A pity, then, that rugby league appears to be making little effort to preach to anybody but the converted about their arrival.
Mum’s the word for farewell Test
FAIRYTALES, it would seem, can come true.
India cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar has got his wish to play his 200th and final Test at his home ground in Mumbai.
If anybody deserves such a swansong, it’s the 40-year-old who announced his decision to retire from the sport last week.
He made his first-class debut at the Wankhede Stadium back in 1988 aged 15 and last year became the only batsman in the history of the game to score 100 international centuries.
Better still, he will be watched in his final Test by somebody who has never once seen him play an international match.
No pressure, Sachin.
Weir’s tough baptism
FOOTBALL management is no easy profession, with all bar the very, very best guaranteed at least one thing during their career – the sack.
So it must be hoped former Everton favourite David Weir is not too disheartened by his early jettisoning from the Sheffield United hotseat.
In his first managerial role, Weir won his opening game but then none of the following 12 – save a penalty shoot-out success in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – and was dumped last week with the Blades bottom of League One.
Weir, an astute man, will learn from the experience. He will be back.