Football in Belgium is on somewhat of a high at the moment as the country’s youth development program finally starts to bear fruits. A talented group of players has emerged and can now be found claiming first team places at a large selection of Europe’s top clubs. English based players like Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Everton’s Marouane Fellaini, Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany and Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke join the likes of Atlético Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, Zenit midfielder Axel Witsel and Cagliari midfielder Radja Nainggolan in what has been described as the best Belgian national side in over 30 years. With a squad beaming with talented youngsters, with more than one in almost every position and sitting top of their group in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification stages with 3 wins out of 4, Belgian fans would be forgiven for thinking about which hotels to book in Rio in two years time.
But it’s not just the national team that is benefiting. The Belgian Pro League is also reaping the rewards with several teams boasting a handful of these talented youngsters making the league more competitive and interesting for the fans. Alongside the usual suspects racing for the title this year, a new horse has joined the race and is competing against the best the league has to offer. SV Zulte-Waregem have never finished higher than 5th in the Pro League but find themselves sitting in 2nd place this season, 5 points behind leaders and defending champions Anderlecht. For the team from West Flanders, it is quite an achievement to be in the running at this stage in the competition, especially with the squad that they have. Managed by a former police detective now turned football coach, Francky Dury, SV Zulte-Waregem have a relatively young squad for the league with 15 members of the first team squad under the age of 21. Dury has focused on blending experience with youth throughout his team and is now starting to see the results after an impressive start to this years campaign. Experienced players like goalkeeper Sammy Bossut, defenders Davy De Fauw and Karel D’Haene, midfielders Jonathan Delaplace, Franck Barrier and Ólafur Ingi Skúlason and strikers Mouhamadou Habibou and M’Baye Leye, have led the way but have been brilliantly supported by a younger cast.
Players like 18-year-old Belgian defender Bernard Malanda Adje, bought from Lille’s second team this summer but already a sucess at the club. As a regular starter and performer, Malanda Adje’s age has not stopped him from impressing his fellow teammates and the clubs management staff with his performances. He has even managed to get on the score sheet for the first time, with an equalising strike against Genk two weeks ago, that turned the game around and resulted in a 3-2 victory for Zulte-Waregem. Also playing an important role in the turnaround that day was Thorgan Hazard, the younger brother of Chelsea star Eden. Thorgan is also a Chelsea player after following his brother to Stamford Bridge earlier this year but was immediately loaned out to Zulte-Waregem to gain some experience. On the day in question, he laid on a killer pass to Franck Barrier who slotted home his 10th goal of the season and ultimately the match winner that day. Hazard has played almost 60% of all of Zulte-Waregem’s fixtures since he arrived and if he continues to impress he may be following his brother, once again, this time into the national team.
Another player hopeful of an international cap is 21-year-old striker Jens Naessens who has been in good form in front of goal this season, notching 4 goals so far out of 21 games, most of which came from the substitute’s bench. In one of the few times that he did start, Naessens got the ball rolling with the first goal of the game against Kortrijk, with the help of Hazard once again. Strike partner for the day M’Baye Leye sealed the three points late on in the game before Kortrijk scored an injury time consolation goal. The Senegalese internationalist has a habit of scoring crucial goals for the club, popping up to snatch 1 or 3 points when needed, but is not as prolific as his manager would have hoped for. It’s a common theme in the team that they aren’t relying solely on the goals of one player, rather playing as a team and sharing the goals throughout. Only French midfielder Franck Barrier can claim to be on fine finishing form with 11 goals in 19 games so far. But that is not Dury’s plan and so far whatever he is doing is working.
Zulte-Waregem know that there is still a long way to go and will be hoping that their form and luck continue through to the end of the season. The players will be aware of the history of the club and about its only venture into European football back in the UEFA Cup in 2006. After lifting their first and only Belgian Cup the season before, Zulte-Waregem managed to reach the last 32 of the competition before they were dispatched by Newcastle United, managed by Glenn Roeder. The current crop of players will be desperate to make this a distant memory and qualify for Europe once more. But they face a difficult task if they are to do so. Dury and his players know that if they can continue to play and score as a team then anything is possible.