Footballing history is littered with examples of the greatest of clubs focusing upon national team football for player recruitment. Every edition of a World Cup, Euro, AFCON or the Copa America brings with it the opportunity to witness footballing talent at one place and in bulk. And should there be no competitions, national teams are always participating in qualification rounds for the aforementioned tournaments. While clubs are usually aware of talents even otherwise, international football is a final test of sorts – a confirmation that the player being monitored is one of the best in his country and is capable of competing at the highest level.
Now, some nations regularly produce this type of talent. They are the usual suspects of course – like Brazil, Argentina, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany, England(the players are alright individually, if only they could play together), Netherlands etc. There is usually a high concentration of talent in these national squads, thanks to their national footballing philosophies, stronger Leagues/youth footballing systems or as in case of the South American countries mentioned, natural top class potential, rooted in the gene.
Clubs first and foremost, look within their domestic boundaries or tend to focus upon specific regions due to the preferences of the manager in place at a given time. However, every once in a while, a nation emerges with its own ‘Golden Generation’ and forces clubs around Europe to turn their heads in its direction. A.C Milan in particular could be used as an example because of the successes they’ve had from investing in players from a foreign country. The 50’s saw their glory days headed by the Swedish trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm while Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team, widely regarded as the best club side to have ever played football, was famous for its Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten.
Not so long ago, it was a very French core at the heart of Arsenal’s ‘Invincible’ team during the 2003/04 season, made up of the France national team mainstays in form of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires. In both the instances, the influence of these foreign players upon their clubs has been huge.
In recent years two national teams apart from those mentioned above, have captured the imagination of the global footballing audience. Uruguay’s exploits in South Africa at the World Cup(finished fourth) and thereafter at the Copa America (Winners) heralded the rebirth of a historic footballing powerhouse. And Belgium, after a successful 80’s decade and the early 90’s, seemed to be fading away into relative obscurity when they were ranked 71st which was an all-time low, in June 2007. Belgium did not qualify for the World Cup and neither have they qualified for the on-going Euro 2012 and yet, while it is Uruguay who have the achievements to boast of in current times, Chelsea remain utterly focused upon the nation famous for its chocolates, waffles and Hergé (Tintin).
Belgium football had its most successful period through the 80’s when they had finished as runners up of the Euro 80’ and then gave their finest ever performance in the World Cup to finish 4th in Mexico, 1986. The fortunes of the national team back then, rested largely upon the shoulders of four highly capable players within their ranks – Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets , Jean Marie Pfaff and the exceptionally talented Italian born Enzo Scifo.
Since then Belgian football has largely been lying in wait for its chance at rightful resurrection to past glories, and there hasn’t been such a dense congregation of young talent at the nation’s service for a while. There is a genuine belief in Belgium about this generation of players that is coming through. And the powers that be at Chelsea football club have decided to invest in this belief. This Belgian group of players are only emerging and there is a lot of ‘yet to be realized’ world class potential there, that the club seems to be gambling upon.
It is always beneficial for clubs to look at foreign players from the same national team. The players are probably used to playing together right from the youth squads for their countries, and it means that they have a better understanding while playing for a club. Squad integration is made smoother for a player when he sees his countryman playing for the same club team and coping with disappointments becomes easier when comfort of the mother tongue is shared.
Chelsea have signed four of Belgium’s top talents in Thibaut Courtois(20), Romelu Lukaku(19), Eden Hazard(21) and Kevin De Bruyne(21). Courtois is currently in his second year of loan at Athletico Madrid. He started 52 games and kept 23 clean sheets during his first season there. Romelu Lukaku signed for Chelsea for a reported fee of 13m rising to 20m in add ons from Anderlecht, but things haven’t yet gone to plan for the 19 year old. He has found chances harder to come by and the adaptation process has been a slow one. One of the positives to focus upon is that the 6ft 3in striker looks to have lost some of his considerable upper body bulk and seems more agile now. Also, at 19, he can take his time establishing himself at Chelsea.
Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne (signed in January 2012 before being loaned back to Genk), are perhaps two of the most excitable talents to have signed for the London club. It isn’t a strict necessity to elaborate much upon Hazard, for much reporting has been done as it is. Hazard was offered contracts by Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal, before he eventually chose to sign with Chelsea. Footballing legend Zinedine Zidane’s quote on the player is well known.
Kevin De Bruyne on the other hand could be a surprise package of sorts and go on to exceed expectations at Chelsea. He registered figures of 6 goals, 14 assists and 8 goals, 15 assists in the last two seasons at Genk. And this, whilst not playing in his preferred position through the middle (except on rare occasions), which has led to confusion that De Bruyne is actually a winger. He was actually likened to Enzo Scifo by AVB. Here are a few quotes on the player.
Chelsea haven’t stopped looking at Belgium yet, in fact their most recent recruitment of the Musonda brothers only indicates that the club has its eyes peeled open for any more emerging talent. They have done their groundwork and have laid the foundation for more Belgians to arrive at the club. Marouane Fellaini and Moussa Dembele continue to be linked off and on. However, the club needs to be careful because too much of a good thing can lead to disappointment.
There have been reports previously too about divided factions within the Chelsea dressing room (most recently between the Portuguese and the English speaking players when the AVB turmoil ensued) and while Di Matteo has been appointed manager on a permanent basis, there is still some way to go before he can assert total control (ala Wenger, Guardiola or Ferguson) over the dressing room. And while the Belgians are talented, they can also be a temperamental lot. The national team caused its entire medical staff to quit in 2009 and caused 86’ World Cup player Leo Van Der Elst to say – ‘Our strength was in our unity, but there are more egos now.’
These are exciting times at Chelsea and only time can tell if the feeling will last.