|Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is among a number of Belgian EPL stars, including Everton's Marouane Fellaini and Fulham's Moussa Dembele [GETTY]
In the build-up to Sunday’s English Premier League match against Manchester United at Stamford Bridge, big spending Chelsea raised eyebrows by signing their third Red Devil in just over six months.
Yet there is no need for Sir Alex Ferguson to fret.
Because these Red Devils are not the ones who call Old Trafford home, but proud Belgians who have long carried the Red Devils’ moniker on the international stage.
The deadline day capture of Racing Genk left-winger Kevin de Bruyne for a reported fee of $10.5 million proves that Belgians are becoming hot property around Europe. De Bruyne joins compatriots Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois on the books at Stamford Bridge.
Like his 19-year-old former club teammate Courtois, 20-year-old de Bruyne will be loaned out for the rest of the season as he grows in maturity and confidence. For now, de Bruyne finds himself back at Genk while goalkeeper Courtois is temporarily wearing the gloves at Atletico Madrid, the former club of Manchester United’s David de Gea.
But cast an eye around England and you’ll see a host of Belgians already successfully plying their trade. They are young, confident and play crucial roles at their clubs.
We saw how Manchester City’s form slumped after the suspension of club captain Vincent Kompany.
Another defender, Thomas Vermaelen, seems to be the glue that keeps an often-fragile Arsenal defence together. Fulham striker Moussa Dembele and Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini are two Belgian stars admired for their skill and tenacity.
Lesser known Dedryck Boyata, of Manchester City who is on-loan at Bolton, and Sunderland’s Simon Mignolet have recently received international call-ups on the back of strong performances in the premiership.
Not to mention Lille wonderkid Eden Hazard, who this week announced his intention to move to the English Premier League later this year. The 21-year-old has already earned 25 international caps and was rated the best player in France as Lille lifted the 2011 Ligue 1 title.
“I’m not surprised by the huge influx of players from Belgium to the Premier League,” said former Australia striker Eddie Krncevic, who played for five clubs during more than a decade in the Belgian league.
“Belgian football has gone through some lean years but I believe they will be back into the top-10 of national teams sooner rather than later.”
The highlight of Krncevic’s European career was three seasons with glamour team Anderlecht in the late 1980s when he collected three trophies including the 1986-87 Belgian league title. He also became the first Aussie to win the Golden Boot in a European championship by scoring 23 league goals for Anderlecht in the 1988-89 season.
|The golden years: Belgium take on Argentina's Diego Maradona in the 1986 World Cup semi-final [GETTY]
The decade was a golden era for Belgian football as they finished runners-up in the 1980 European Championship to West Germany and secured fourth place at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico where superstars like Eric Gerets, Jan Ceulemans and Enzo Scifo helped the Red Devils beat Spain and the Soviet Union before losing to eventual champions Argentina in the semi-finals.
But once the big money flowed into the sport after the Millennium, the standard of Belgium’s Jupiler League dropped and the national side struggled to even make it to World Cups and European Championships
Since co-hosting Euro 2000 with the Netherlands, Belgium have been unable to qualify for five out of six major tournaments, including Euro 2012 where they finished third in their group behind Germany and Turkey. Failing to beat the likes of Azerbaijan and Austria came back to haunt Georges Leekens’ side.
“Belgium’s decline has been due to players opting to go to other leagues where they’re paid a lot more money,” said Krncevic, who also plied in his trade in Croatia, Germany and France as well as his native Australia.
“In the old days, a lot of top Africans and Eastern Europeans used to come to Belgium first and then move on, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
Conversely, many of the Belgians who leave their homeland as raw teenagers become better players by the time they reach their 20’s.
Hazard moved to Lille at the age of 14 while Vermaelen and Ajax defender Jan Vertonghen were part of the youth system in the Netherlands. Outstanding midfielder Dries Mertens, now 24, paid his dues at modest Dutch clubs before establishing himself at PSV Eindhoven.
Still just 18, starlet Romelu Lukaku seems an exception to the rule, having already made nine appearances in all competitions for Chelsea since his much-vaunted move from Anderlecht. And before too long the teenager could feature more regularly, as manager Andre Villas-Boas explores different attacking options, given the mediocre form of Fernando Torres and uncertain future of Didier Drogba.
Already long suffering fans from this northern European nation of 11 million people are looking forward with cautious optimism to the start of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign in September when they’re grouped with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Macedonia, and Wales.
With Bayern Munich stalwart Daniel Van Buyten partnering Kompany in defence, there should be a solid platform for Belgium’s emerging attacking players to shine against their European counterparts.
These Red Devils may never get the chance to play at the Theatre of Dreams, but they seem ready to end a decade of disappointment for their fans at Brussels’ King Baudouin Stadium.
Former CNN & BBC anchor Jason Dasey is an Asia-based Premier League broadcaster and host of the weekly Football Fever Podcast Twitter: JasonDasey