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Mpenza to Mirallas | A Short History of Belgians in the Premier League

Posted: 16/05/2013 00:00

There was a time when anything you couldn't learn about Belgian football from watching the occasional reel of Enzo Scifo on Eurogoals or owning a copy of Championship Manager 97/98 in which an aged and apostrophe-feral Michel Preud'homme would wander the free transfer prairie from one close-season to the next like a weather-beaten old horse, probably wasn't worth knowing.

Even for the average indoctrinated English football fan, prior to the mass invasion of Flemish stars in the last half-decade or so, perhaps the only point of reference in the Premiership Years was moustachioed Newcastle stopper Philippe Albert: or, don't-worry-he-won't-try-anything-from-oh as Peter Schmeichel's internal monologue might remember him. Elsewhere Luc Nilis arrived at Villa in 2001 with a glowing reputation as Ruud Van Nistelrooy's erstwhile partner in goal-crimes at PSV; but whose career was cut hideously short after a leg-splintering tryst with Richard Wright in only his third appearance.

Émile Mpenza was a familiar name with a glamorous profile, but scarcely managed five goals in his two seasons at Man City, before moving to the sleepy south coast with Plymouth Argyle. Now, at 34, he's on the hunt for a new club after leaving Azerbaijani side Neftchi Baku in January 2012. Not always, then, have our neighbours in the west provided the league with such pervasive quality. Indeed, a first-rate Belgian was often hard to come by.

Nowadays on this small island, of course, you can't fall through a turnstile or click on a television set without catching sight of one of their gifted number; a ubiquitous phenomenon exclusive to no region. Clubs from foggy London town employ breakthrough artists and PFA favourites Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen; likewise relative old hands Thomas Vermaelen and Moussa Dembélé- the latter of whom produced two barnstorming performances at Old Trafford in the season's early days without ever signing for United.

Merseyside is well represented with Everton duo Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas. The Midlands, too, count Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku as residents; both having impressed this year with their speed, power and thigh muscles like digger pistons. In the north-east, Simon Mignolet, despite Sunderland's wretched 2012/13, has been one the League's most dependable net guardians. And in the north-west, Manchester, last year's championship-winning captain is one of game's finest defenders. Every good household, it seems, shouldn't be without its very own Belgian megastar.

Beyond the World's Bestest League™, the national team is starting to get its act together, too. With the loose-ends of qualifying all but sewn-up, with enough free time to indulge in some rather complex embroidery, most bookmakers have this current crop around 20/1 for a World Cup winners medal in Brazil next year- similar odds to that of Holland and Italy and shorter than France and Portugal. Although we've been hoodwinked by the 'Golden Generation' handle in the past- cough- for this group of players, even reaching an international tournament, a feat they've not managed since 1994 (they co-hosted Euro 2000) is some measure of achievement.

So what's the cause of this sudden groundswell of exciting Belgian talent? Much has been attributed to the lack of financial wherewithal in the Jupiler Pro League. Without a suitable vessel to p*ss in, the division's foremost incumbents have seen fit to invest seriously in their youth teams and direct more attention towards grass-roots development. A cheaper alternative for sides unable to match the fiscal weight of England and Spain, clubs concentrating on their academies have seen a remarkable boom in promoting home-grown players within. Steven Defour, Benteke, and Chelsea pair Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, for example, are all products of the Genk youth set-up.

Following the success of Mirallas, Lukaku and those before them, it's likely others will consider England an attractive destination to further enhance their status. Perhaps the most well-known Belgian outside of the Premier League is Axel Witsel, who made his name by reducing Marcin Wasilewski's shin-bone to atoms before hopping aboard the Gazprom Express at St. Petersburg last September. While it's unlikely he'll be turning up in Norfolk anytime soon, his fellow countrymen Toby Alderweireld and Dries Mertens have both been ballyhooed for potential moves across the channel; following in the footsteps of Vertonghen and Vermaelen who've tread the Belgium-Holland-England career path in recent years. Meanwhile Cagliari's Radja Nainggolan was mentioned as a possible target for nouveau riche Southampton back in April. The league's love affair with the current Nation du Jour, then, doesn't look to be ending anytime soon.

 

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