AFRICA REPPIN’: BELGIUM LOOK TO FRANCE FOR INSPIRATION

The Belgians, like the Euros’ hosts, have summoned an Africa-heavy squad to have a genuine shot at glory and would have a fine example from the past to emulate

By: Sammie Frimpong

Heading into the freshly-commenced edition of the European Championship, few nations have a squad more star-studded than Belgium. Nearly half of the group Marc Wilmots called up — Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Divock Origi, Christian Benteke, Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Romelu Lukaku (Everton) — are easily starters on any Premier League matchday for some of England’s biggest clubs. Still others feature in the colours of other elite continental sides: Michy Batshuayi (Olympique Marseille), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma), Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco (Atletico Madrid), Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersburg) et al.

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Having all those big names, however, is only one edge of the incredibly sharp sword the latest Fifa World Ranking’s No.2-positioned team wields; having quite a good number of African-originated players in that roster makes it dangerously double-edged.

A typical Wilmots line-up, if you’d dare hazard a guess, might include up to half of Belgium’s stars of African extraction. Add the likes of Christian Kabesele and the younger Lukaku, left-back Jordan, (who admittedly may not make it into a randomly-picked starting XI) and the Dark Continent’s influence on De Rode Duivels’ fortunes becomes even more palpable.

Put simply, if Belgium are to have a good chance of matching the hype that’s surrounded them in recent years, Africa would have a huge say. And if that’s to happen in France — a country that has itself counted heavily on African talent for decades — the aptness of it all would be lost on few.

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Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke, both of African origins, are expected to lead the lines for Belgium today

Around the turn of the century, France enjoyed perhaps their finest moments on the international stage, winning the Fifa World Cup and the European Championship in quick succession, and sprinkling that impressive haul of silverware with a couple of Fifa Confederations Cup titles. Of the bunch, though, it arguably was the second — the Euros — which confirmed Les Bleus’ supremacy, following the Mundial success that some may have attributed to ‘hosts’ luck’.

That trophy, co-incidentally won at a tournament hosted jointly by the Netherlands and — wait for it — Belgium in 2000, was brought home by a squad which included three players of direct African extraction (never mind all the other black players of that gifted French generation who could remotely hail from an African village near you) who all played key roles: skipper Marcel Desailly

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Les Bleus have gained notoriety over the years for their heavy reliance on players with African roots

(Ghana), overall best player Zinedine Zidane (Algeria), and constant midfield presence Patrick Vieira (Senegal, Cape Verde).

It’s that template Wilmots may like to pattern his own hopes after, harnessing al he can from the ‘Africans’ at his disposal. It certainly isn’t a bad model to emulate; hardly anything to be ashamed of. Belgians would certainly be proud should that experiment result in glory but, doubtlessly, Africans would be prouder still. Alternatively, however, we could stick to the French — as we always do when they’re involved — and their characteristically thick ‘African’ contingent.

‘Hosts’ luck’, right?

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