By Stefan Coerts
Belgium are seen by many as one of the dark horses at next summer’s World Cup after their impressive qualification campaign and last week's favourable draw in Costa do Sauipe has only further raised expectations in the camp of the Euro 2000 co-hosts.
While the Rode Duivels are clearly a team on the rise, Belgian clubs have been unable to match the national team’s performances, and no side has survived the group stages of the Champions League since 2001.
Reigning champions Anderlecht currently sit rock bottom of Group C, with just one point from five games, having finished bottom of their section last season as well. Admittedly, Genk have given a good account of themselves in the Europa League so far, yet Club Brugge and Standard Liege - Belgium's remaining two traditional powerhouses - either failed to make the group stages or are already eliminated.
It has not always been like this for clubs from Belgium's top flight, though. They may not have dominated Europe like their Dutch neighbours once did, but Pro League sides were a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s and 1980s. During those two decades, Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Mechelen made it to a combined total of nine European finals, with the capital side making waves with two Cup Winners' Cups and one Uefa Cup triumph between 1976 and 1983.
However, the glory days of Belgian football are long behind us as they have mustered just one quarter-final spot in a European competition in the 21st century - courtesy of Standard Liege in the Europa League in 2009-10.
The dramatic demise of Belgian club football is down to a number of factors, yet there's one standout reason for the league's drop in quality in the past two decades and that's Belgian clubs' inability to hold on to their key players.
However, with the Bosman ruling significantly changing the footballing landscape in 1995, players started leaving for greener - and more lucrative - pastures more regularly and at a considerably younger age, something which has hurt the Pro League a great deal.
"A lot of players leave Belgium for bigger leagues, like [Axel] Witsel and [Marouane] Fellaini," Belgium international, and NAC Breda defender, Sepp De Roover tells Goal.
"The Pro League has become a feeder league over the years. Belgian clubs have yet to find an answer to the problem of their best players leaving."
With sides like Anderlecht, Brugge, Genk and Liege unable to compete with the big guns in Europe financially, they have started to turn their attention to their youth academies in an attempt to close the gap - and with plenty of success.
Exciting youngsters such as Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans, Maxime Lestienne and Michy Batshuayi have been in fine form this season and seem destined for great things. Yet even here the Belgian clubs encounter a familiar problem with players moving abroad before breaking into the first team.
Of the current Belgium squad, Koen Casteels, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld, Nacer Chadli, Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard and Zakaria Bakkali all left their native country before even making a single appearance at senior level for the club at which they started out, while several Belgium Under-21 players have made the same decision, as a move to a bigger league often proves too tempting to turn down.
|Foreign clubs sign a lot of youngsters and there are always some who will come good, like you see with Adnan Januzaj
- Sepp De Roover
"The bigger clubs from abroad are willing to take a gamble with signing young players. They often sign a lot of youngsters between the age of 16 and 20 and there are always some who will come good, like you see with [Adnan] Januzaj. He came through the ranks at Anderlecht, but is now a starter at Manchester United at the age of 18. It’s impossible to compete with clubs like this," De Roover adds.
With the exodus of the league's best youngsters and top players set to continue in the years to come due to the financial superiority of the so-called 'bigger' leagues, it seems unlikely that the level of the Belgian top flight will ever get back to that of the 1970s and 1980s.
"I think it will be very hard for Belgian clubs to become competitive again in Europe, also because of the financial gap with the bigger leagues. Clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona have huge budgets and Belgian sides can’t compete with that," De Roover concludes.
Yet even though success in European club football seems a world away at this stage, Belgian football fans have no reason to despair. The national side is more than capable of making up for the lack of joy at club level. Even if going all the way at the World Cup in Brazil might prove a bridge too far, Belgium certainly have the potential to make waves at international level in the years to come.
No Belgium squad has ever managed to win a major tournament, but the current crop of players might just be the generation to end that wait.
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