Monday, 17 January 2011
You might have seen a fair few articles over the last year, certainly over the last few months, relating to the two guys above, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku. Transfer speculation has been rife, with a who's-who of Europe's top clubs apparently willing to pay top dollar to secure their services. You'll struggle to read a transfer rumour round-up without being told of who's currently winning the race to land the signature of either young prospect.
Much has been made of the current crop of Belgian talent, some already established in foreign leagues, such as Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini. Then there are those still plying their trade in their native land, names like Defour and Witsel will be familiar to those who saw Standard Liege in the Champions League in recent seasons, prior to Standard's decline over the last couple of years.
In trips to Belgium, I've taken in games at Gent and Charleroi and also visited Standard Liege's Stade de Sclessin. One thing strikes you when you visit these stadiums, that the facilites are poor and dated, it's almost like English football prior to the creation of the Premier League, which put a shiny new gloss on it all. Clearly Belgian football is far behind some of Europe's larger leagues in terms of funding, yet there's still a decent output of gifted players.
There are a few contributing factors, but I believe the main one is that players in a league where the pennies are watched more carefully are more likely to get their chance at a young age. Take Lukaku for instance, a prolific presence in the Jupiler League at the age of 16. Obviously this isn't happening at every club, but could you ever see the likes of Chelsea or Manchester United giving a 16 year-old a chance to lead the line? Kevin De Bruyne of Genk is another youngster who has been thrown in at the deep end and flourished.
It could be argued that the pressure on them to succeed instantly is less intense, but that is still something that is present. With Lukaku often used as a lone-striker at Anderlecht, his broad shoulders have had to carry a lot of expectation.
Over in nearby Germany there is also an exciting new wave of talent. Most of the footballing world sat up and took notice during the World Cup, as the likes of Mesut Özil and Thomas Müller announced themselves on the big stage. Özil and Müller aside, the wider footballing world will surely be aware of talents such as Kevin Großkreutz, Mats Hummels, André Schürrle, Benedikt Höwedes, Sven Bender, Marco Reus, Lewis Holtby and Marko Marin by the time Euro 2012 has concluded, if they aren't already.
Despite the Bundesliga being a more high profile and financially sound league than Belgium's Jupiler League, financial prudence is still a key reason why many German clubs are keen to give their youngsters a first team chance early on. With the DFB's rules on ownership preventing any Sheik Mansour or Roman Abramovich-type scenarios, the Bundesliga has a healthy mix of home-grown talent and foreign imports.
All hope is not lost on these shores though. Despite their dissapointing position in the league this season, it's been a pleasure to see the likes of Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark and Jonathan Hogg flourishing at Aston Villa this season. They've perhaps lacked the right kind of experience around them, but it has provided encouragement seeing them make their mark, Albrighton in particular.
As the financial bubble slowly deflates for some clubs in English football (I say, trying to ignore the fact that today's main news was Aston Villa's apparent willingness to part with £18m for Darren Bent) and with the 25 man squads being another step in the right direction, let's hope that UEFA's financial fair play initiative can also force a few more clubs to look at giving youth a chance.