The Grand Place was packed, a sea of red shirts. The Belgium squad waved down from the balcony of Brussels' City Hall, celebrating their third-place finish in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It felt like the entire country (population: 11 million) was packed into the square. "It's a difficult environment, sometimes, but the moment we did something like that, everybody's together," Kevin de Bruyne told ESPN.
The Belgium squad was packed with global superstars such as De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois. They'd gone further in a World Cup than any other group from that small, European country before them. "Belgium is a very small nation in terms of numbers, but a huge nation in terms of possibilities," manager Roberto Martinez told ESPN. "A nation with three languages, diverse backgrounds... and everyone came together for one goal: to win a football match, and that is a beautiful story."
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They call this group the "Golden Generation" -- a group of players who would walk into most first teams in the world, with Europe's top leagues all represented. Dries Mertens plays for Napoli, and Lukaku at Inter Milan in Serie A. Toby Alderweireld, De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans and Michy Batshuayi are in the Premier League. Axel Witsel, Thorgan Hazard and Thomas Meunier are at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, with Koen Casteels at Wolfsburg. Over in Spain, Yannick Carrasco and captain Eden Hazard are in La Liga with Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid respectively. Then there's Jan Vertonghen, who left Spurs in the summer for Benfica.
"We know we are a talented team, but we don't call ourselves the golden generation," Lukaku told ESPN. "We don't give ourselves a name, but we know we're a talented bunch of players. Obviously being young, I always had the ambition to play for Belgium at the highest level, on the biggest stages. To achieve that is great, but when we realised we could really win something, you start chasing that dream."
Next summer brings the delayed European Championships. If Belgium win, it'll be one of the sport's great success stories given that 10 years ago, they were ranked 70th in the world. By June 2021, Belgium will compete as one of the favourites, sitting at the top of the FIFA rankings. But even in those dark times in 2010, behind the scenes Belgium were developing world-class talent they hoped would deliver a major trophy. This talent has come together to guide Belgium to the top of the world game.
And yet, the Belgian national team are adamant they are here to stay as a global footballing superpower. This is how Belgium reached the top.
Three days before Belgium faced England, the Red Devils were warming down, having just beaten Switzerland 2-1 in Brussels the previous evening. Martinez had rested a number of their top stars, leaning instead on the squad's younger players. Lukaku was helping 18-year-old Jeremy Doku with his finishing. Yari Verschaeren, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder at Anderlecht, was keeping a close eye on De Bruyne's technique, while goalkeeper Courtois was training alongside 22-year-old Gaeten Coucke.
It's a remarkable hotbed of talent most countries would envy. However, 20 years ago, Belgian football suffered its nadir. They suffered the ignominy of failing to get out of their group in their home European Championships. The system wasn't working.
Martinez is sitting in his office at the Belgium training complex, the Proximus Basecamp in Tubize, 25 kilometres south of Brussels. Behind him on the shelf is a small fluffy toy of Belgium's Red Devil mascot.
The former Swansea City, Wigan and Everton manager holds a dual role with the Belgium FA. He was appointed manager in 2016, adding the role of technical director in May when he signed a new contract through 2022. "2000 was a big year for Belgian football," Martinez said via Zoom. "The lost focus became a real hurt because that team couldn't compete and there was a real conscious decision to find out what was the real Belgium way."
They looked across their western and northern borders to seek inspiration from their neighbours. "The influences [they looked to] where the Dutch school of Total Football, the Johan Cruyff way, and Clairefontaine [the French national football centre] in France and this would bring together the Belgian imprint." The imprint was informally called "Project 2000" and was moulded into "La vision de formation de l'URBSFA" by then-technical director Michael Sablon. Where past success had been more by choice than design, they needed a uniformed approach.
"They developed the players within one system, playing 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, and from that point the very good work was being done," Martinez -- another Cruyff disciple -- continued. "Everybody had to be in control of the ball, had to look after it and be able to defend."
This is now formalised as the Programme of the Futures. "We have separate programmes where the more physical players can develop technically, but the technical players can be allowed to play games against teams that are at the same maturity and that has given us huge results," Martinez said. "If I look at the Red Devils at the moment, there are a few late maturing players -- Dries Mertens, Thomas Meunier, Yannick Carrasco -- I could tell you a few more."
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This environment yielded the team we're seeing today -- Eden Hazard is an outlier, playing most of his teenage football in France and identified early as a brilliant talent. Lukaku, 27, grew up in Antwerp and joined Anderlecht's academy at 12 years old. His heroes were Brazil's Ronaldo and Vincent Kompany, who was at Anderlecht too. Lukaku was developed through the Purple Talent Project -- a programme instigated by Romelu's father, Roger -- that offered promising young players an education alongside their football training.
Carl Hoefkens, the former Belgium defender and now coach at Club Brugge, remembers the first time he encountered Lukaku in 2019.
"I heard about him, but never put a face on him," Hoefkens told ESPN. "He was at Anderlecht, and I was at Club Brugge. I was quite physical, but he was 16 and I thought, 'Oh my God, who is this dude?' then I realised he was a young guy and his potential was just frightening." The Purple Talent Project has evolved into a full-blown strategy called the Purple Talent Programme, with eight of the 23-man 2018 World Cup squad having come through the Anderlecht academy -- a place that counts Lukaku's emergence as proof of the system working.
De Bruyne, 29, who was born in Drongen to the north, only played for the Belgium age-grade sides when he was 17, though he was already training with the KRC Genk first team. He was "held back" at international level -- born in the latter half of the year (March to August), they were sometimes slighter than their teammates who were born earlier in the school year (September to February). They had the Belgium Under-15s, and then the Belgium Under-15 late developers.
"I think everybody has their own pathway," De Bruyne said. "I think the Belgium philosophy has changed in the past 10 years, and probably in a better way -- better for football, before it was more powerful, athleticism and some players went under the radar there. I think they changed it and there are more players coming through out of Belgium so they made the right decision for them."
But Martinez is quick to emphasise Belgium -- a country the size of Massachusetts and with double its population -- cannot get complacent in their drive to discover and nurture players.
"We cannot afford to lose a talent and we work together to avoid that," Martinez said. "I am confident we won't lose any [players], I'm trying to do all we can and that is our challenge. We cannot lose one talent."
Though Lukaku and De Bruyne benefited from different strands of Project 2000, what united them was the influence and example of their former 89-cap Belgium captain. "Vince [Kompany] was the man to me," Lukaku said. "We have the same background and he played for the team I supported as a kid. When Vince broke through in 2004, I was about 12 at the time: I just wanted to be like him.
"Even though he was a defender, I wanted to play for Anderlecht, the city I love, and just win titles. I knew one day if I got my chance, I hoped I could take things to the next level like Vince did when he started."
De Bruyne played with Kompany at Manchester City from 2015 to 2019.
"He [Kompany] was one of the first players who made a couple of transfers to foreign countries, and he did pretty well," De Bruyne said. "In England he became a champion and a real leader, so I think what he did with a couple of other players is to open the market a little bit more for the Belgian players. Then there was more interest in Belgian players and they've now opened it up as [they] performed well. When you talk about football in Belgium everybody is praising it at the moment. That's really important, but it started with people like Vinny."
Kompany left Manchester City in May 2018 with a legacy as one of the Premier League's greatest defenders. He went back to Anderlecht to take up a joint player-manager role ahead of the 2018-19 campaign and has since retired to focus on managing the Belgian Pro League side. Just like with his playing career, others are preparing to follow his example again.
Twenty of the current squad, including De Bruyne, Witsel, Thorgan Hazard and Courtois, are doing their coaching badges as part of a scheme introduced by the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB) in 2019. The hope is at least 50% of this generation will end up managing in Belgium. When Martinez spoke to ESPN, the squad had spent a couple of hours that day progressing with their courses.
"The reason why this current generation is where it is because of the individual experiences they had," Martinez said. "And you cannot write a book or a model in that respect because every individual took a journey that is very different, and they need to bring it out. From our end we want to encourage that role in the players and doing the badges make you stop as a player and you start thinking in other ways and other people on the pitch."
To that point, Martinez spent the first COVID-19 lockdown poring through data on his laptop, looking at the players born in 2000 and 2001. He and his staff developed "small projects" for them, to help "teach them on how to win."
Verschaeren, the 19-year-old Anderlecht midfielder, is frequently linked with moves to Europe's top clubs, but remains in Belgium. His Anderlecht teammate defender Marco Kana, 18, and KV Mechelen midfielder Aster Vranckx, 18, are also highly sought after, with Manchester City and Liverpool linked with both. But the Belgian talent chiefs don't want them to move too soon. Martinez hopes Belgian youngsters see the benefits of playing in the Belgian Pro League, though each individual's circumstances warrant a different process.
"It isn't an [issue of] age, but a level of maturity. That level is normally reached at 50 games for your first team. By facing that adversity in the first team, and that is between 40 to 60 games. That could be achieved at 16, 17 or 18 years old, or that could be achieved at 22 years old. The player needs to be mature enough to deal with football abroad, but not just the football side but the human being that needs to be able to survive abroad."
Doku, the incredibly talented 18-year-old striker, is thriving in France's Ligue 1 having left Anderlecht for Rennes in October for €26 million plus add-ons. His tender age belies his talent and experience and he already has five caps for the senior side; he also benefited from the Martinez plan to bring youngsters into the fold. While Doku is now part of the senior squad, in the recent batch of games Martinez brought in defenders Hannes Delcroix, Sebastiaan Bornauw and striker Charles De Ketelaere for their opening friendly against Switzerland -- they all returned to the Under-21s while the Red Devils prepared for England and Denmark.
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"There is a process of starting to prepare the younger players for why this generation is number 1 on the FIFA rankings and what it takes," Martinez said. "It has been really intriguing -- over the past two friendlies, we have used a completely new group of players with a lot of potential but with just that: potential.
"Even at club level they have not reached a full, important role in that dressing room, but we feel like they have got very clear metrics of why they can be part of a winning team in the future."
These young players are not given an easy ride. "Everybody's different, but every club has their culture where you set the tone and that comes from the older players," De Bruyne said.
Lukaku remembers training with Kompany, Moussa Dembele and Marouane Fellaini -- all now retired from international duty -- was a "pure battle" and that intensity has continued even in their absence. "We had that confidence. You can ask Kevin, Jan Vertonghen, Toby, Eden -- we had the confidence because individually we were better than the players from the other generation, so for us it was a matter of time to take it to the next level.
"We let them [the younger players] know from day one -- as soon as they come on the pitch, we don't make jokes. We tell them if something is not going well, how it should go. We tell them in a nice but positive way, but we also let them know we are here to win.
"But now because we set the bar so high, we had to make sure the young kids that are coming through have to reach us, so we try to help them but at the same time we let them know playing for the Belgium national team means to win."
When Martinez took over Belgium after Marc Wilmots left in July 2016, they were No. 2 in the world, seven years removed from ranking 70th in 2010. The group knew they were a special bunch of players, but lacked consistency in major tournaments having just lost in the quarterfinals of Euro 2016 to Wales. Martinez started by switching Belgium to 3-4-3, playing to the group's strengths and putting real meaning into the Belgium badge.
"We had to get a clear message that talent alone doesn't win," Martinez said. "From them, it was creating an environment where there was clarity, and having that reason to be together; the reason for us to be together was to create moments we can treasure when everyone is retired and to create a legacy for generations to come.
"Playing for the Red Devils is more than just playing an international game, they are ambassadors for their communities, areas and places that they represent. It is a lot more than just a football game. We knew individually we could never reach any target unless we could put the individuals at the service of the team. We had to get the individuals to commit to it."
Martinez sought to bottle the mentality the players had at their clubs, where, as he puts it, they are "demanded to win titles, and win every game". He wanted to "cherish" and "protect" that attitude and bring it to international football.
"To be No. 1 in the world you need the talent, but also to be consistent," Martinez said, with the view to then peak for major tournaments.
"In this culture this team learnt how to get to a winning mentality," De Bruyne said. "When I started, Belgium was in a difficult period and didn't qualify for a lot of tournaments in a row."
"This team is pretty much similar to two years ago, where everybody was between 20 and 25 years old. Everybody was young. And now you have players between 26 and 34 and we've learnt how to elevate ourselves as a team and we've learnt how to win games."
The reality of international football means a player will have three chances at winning a major tournament at their peak. "That's the dream for us [to win a major trophy]," De Bruyne said. "We must make sure we make the best out of every opportunity that we have. You never know what can happen in football, that's the ambition and the dream for sure."
The next group are already blending into the Golden Generation. They are a bunch of world-class players who dearly love playing for their country.
"If you look at our team, we are a diverse team, of different ethnicities and different backgrounds but we stick together - no matter what, we are always together," Lukaku said. "We tried to show to the Belgium population we can be unified despite being from different backgrounds and different parts of the population."
Martinez feels they don't necessarily need trophies to define them as individuals, but success at the Euros in 2021, and in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would leave an unrivalled, long-term legacy.
"I think the scenes when we arrived in Belgium [in 2018] motivated us in the best possible manner to get to the next level. A team that is totally united can achieve anything in life," Martinez said. "They don't need it as individuals, it is something they will fight for but to win it would really leave a legacy for the next generation."