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Reassuringly expensive: the small nation with big-priced talent

IN Scotland there is always the potential for self-flagellation to replace football as the national sport.

Over the past couple of days considerable attention has been devoted to an issue which will become more aggressively pursued if things go badly at Hampden tomorrow. Namely: how come Belgium suddenly have all the answers while Scotland still stumble around in the dark?

Being inferior to Brazil, Spain, Germany and the like - whisper it, even England too - is easy to process given the vast difference in population bases. But the accusation and suspicion of Scottish negligence is always harder to defend when nations such as Uruguay (population 3.3 million), the Republic of Ireland (4.5m) and now Belgium (11m) enjoy some degree of footballing prominence.

The Belgians are the latest to have supposedly discovered some sort of football alchemy which continues to elude the Scottish Football Association et al. When the Group A leaders run out at Hampden tomorrow night no-one could blame the Scotland support for looking on with a mixture of resentment and envy, like the neighbours of a lottery winner. They are everything Scotland would wish to be: magnificently talented, physically powerful, confident and tactically aggressive. The spine of the team plays in the Barclays Premier League in prominent positions at all the top clubs. Manchester United: Marouane Fellaini. Manchester City: Vincent Kompany (who will miss this tie because of injury but is the leader of this new Belgium). Chelsea: Eden Hazard. Arsenal: Thomas Vermaelen (also absent). Tottenham: Mousa Dembele.

The squad is young, too: Fellaini is 25, Axel Witsel 24, Christian Benteke, Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne 22, Romelu Lukaku only 20. Kompany and Vermaelen are "veterans" at 27. It is a crop of players which has emerged from nowhere. Belgium reached six consecutive World Cups from 1982 to 2002 but did not make it in 2006 or 2010. They have not qualified for the European Championships since 1984, except as co-hosts at Euro 2000, where they lost two of their three group games and were eliminated.

It was such a humbling experience that Michel Sablon, the national technical director of the Belgian FA, decided to lay down a new blueprint. "In 2001 we established a new vision to develop young players in Belgium," Sablon explained.

Each club was given a brochure with guidance on how best to manage development, and Sablon's conclusion was that 95% of the clubs followed the instructions. At every age group the national youth teams began playing the same system: a high-tempo, pressing 4-3-3.

But giving clubs a brochure, and the youth teams harmonising their formation, is no foundation for a revolution. Belgium's emergence does not fit any neat explanation which would be of use to a country, like Scotland, which might wish to emulate them. A theme in the background of many of the current Belgian internationalists is early emigration into the youth systems of clubs in the Netherlands or France, sometimes from as young as 15. For a period Beerschot - who sold Victor Wanyama to Celtic - even had a feeder club arrangement with Ajax Amsterdam. When Chelsea paid £32m for Hazard, the money went to the French club, Lille. Many of this bunch of players have spent little or no time in Belgian club football.

What they have produced is the raw talent. The population is more than twice as big as Scotland's - 11m compared to 5m - and Belgium's colonial past and the multicultural composition of its major cities - Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, Charleroi, Liege - means that its football can draw on indigenous talent and also those of African origin. Kompany's father is a Congolese immigrant. Lukaku's father played for the Zaire national team. Benteke himself was born in Kinshasa before his family fled the President Mobutu regime to move to Liege. Dembele's father is Malian. Fellaini's parents are Moroccan. Around 23% of the population are of non-Belgian origin.

There is a compelling argument for believing that Belgium is enjoying its equivalent of Manchester United's Giggs-Scholes-Beckham-Nevilles windfall in 1992, when a group of exceptional players suddenly emerge and coalesce into a formidable team. In June 2007, before most of the current group had come into the national team, Belgium had slipped to an all-time low of 71st in the Fifa rankings.

As this "golden generation" - usually a cursed phrase - were bled into the side there was an inexorable climb to the current all-time high of tenth. They are as short as 16/1 to win the World Cup, behind only Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Spain despite being the only one of that handful never to have won a tournament before. They do have a group of players more exciting and promising than any in their history.

But what's instructive, given the current clamour for Scotland to copy whatever it is Belgium are getting right, is to look at what happened over this summer. Uefa staged European Championships at Under-21, Under-19 and Under-17 level. Scotland failed to qualify for any of them. So did Belgium.

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