Euro 2028 bid could provide spark for grassroots revolution in Irish soccer

FAI can learn from how Belgium reinvented themselves after home tournament ended in failure

'The way Belgium had been eliminated was simply not acceptable. The team hit rock bottom. There was a quality vacuum, and something needed to be done."Michel Sablon, former Belgium technical director, on the aftermath of Euro 2000

Josh Cullen has a unique perspective of Belgian football's re-engineering project, ignited by Hakan Sükür knocking the co-hosts out of the European Championships at King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels 22 years ago. The Anderlecht midfielder, an ever-present for club manager Vincent Kompany and Stephen Kenny's Ireland, inadvertently explained this week why it is currently impossible for Irish football to replicate De Rode Duivels dizzying climb to the top of the Fifa rankings.

Despite the non-existence of a football industry in Ireland, FAI chief executive Jonathan Hill repeatedly referenced the Belgium model last month when promoting strategic pillars that can only be held in place by a sustainable football industry.

“Anderlecht are one of the most well respected academies around the world, a lot of players have come through there and gone on to great careers,” said Cullen, who joined West Ham United’s fabled youth ranks at the age of nine. “They’ve invested in the grassroots side, in the facilities for young players over there to practise and hone their skills.


“It’s been a 20-year or so project to get to where they are today and it takes time. I think they are definitely an example for other medium- or small-sized nations in Europe to follow and hopefully we are in the process of doing that as well.”

Hopefully. Not definitely.

Cullen has the air of a man who does not melt under fire. For example, the 25-year-old spoke “on behalf of all the lads” when fully backing Kenny before protracted contract negotiations began with Hill late last year.

“I wouldn’t be 100 per cent sure how to put my finger on it,” Cullen conceded, when a soundbite was sought about how Belgium’s former technical director Michel Sablon unified the many country’s soccer tribes under the same coaching philosophy that nurtured a golden generation of talent. “I know a lot of work over there has gone into the grassroots side of things over a long period of time.

“Obviously they’ve developed some really good players who have gone on to play for some of the top clubs around the world and make their national team a very strong side.

“Like anything,” Cullen repeated, “they’ve obviously worked on it over a long period of time.”

Like any successful enterprise, Belgian football people have been reading off the same script for two decades.

The disunity and mistrust within Irish football was wonderfully offset by the return of crowds at international matches last year, as supporters made it abundantly clear that they wanted a product of their own grassroots system to drive the national side as far away as possible from 20 years of financial shenanigans that made Champagne Football an automatic best seller.

What success looks like to Belgium football – the 2018 open-top bus tour of Brussels with World Cup bronze medals on display – is so far beyond what it means to Irish football in 2022. Belgium is not the model for Ireland to replicate. Not without a professional football industry.

Will there ever be a whirring football industry on this island or is the latest scattering of teenagers to Serie A academies another example of a giant football nation slicing prime rib off the bone of Irish soccer and discarding the rest?

The Bleacher Report and CNN both embarked on deep dives into the recent phenomenon that has so nearly had Belgium matching the rise of next door neighbours the Netherlands in the 1970s. It all started by draining the quagmire of schoolboy football.

"In the tapestry of clubs, top sport schools and national youth teams, Sablon stressed the importance of the individual player," wrote Samindra Kunti for Bleacher Report in June 2016. "The technical director and a small group of loyal zealots, including Bob Browaeys, Eric Abrams, Marc van Geersom and Kris van der Haegen, became flag-bearers. They carried their dogma to the clubs and interested parties in the Flemish and Walloon constituency, so often an unfettered quagmire of provincialism and ineptitude."

The initial Belgium approach under Sablon in 2001 was inspired by the Ajax-Dutch-Barcelona philosophy connected to Johan Cruyff, but over time it has morphed into the "Germanic school of play" or simply the Kloppism of high pressure without the ball.

This can be whittled down to building an attack around Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku (all of whom are rested for Irish football's centenary celebration, although Belgium's biggest compliment to Kenny's team is to head-hunt his coach Anthony Barry).

“When I scout there are six characteristics that matter: winning mentality, emotional stability, personality, explosiveness, insight in the game and ball and body control,” said Abrams, Belgium’s under-17 coach during this restructuring era.

“Which qualities does a 15-year-old player need to possess today to play the game in a decade’s time? Every player will have to be a decision-maker. A central defender must not only defend and recover possession, but also pass and attack. Today, at top clubs, strikers are the first defenders. You always need to define the player profile of the future.

“You have to innovate or you will regress like the Netherlands.”

To some extent Belgium and its population of 11.6 million exist in a darker shadow of German and Dutch football than Ireland’s proximity to the English club game, especially after Brexit forced under-18 Irish talent to seek club options outside the UK.

Will there ever be a whirring football industry on this island or is the latest scattering of teenagers to Serie A academies another example of a giant football nation slicing prime rib off the bone of Irish soccer and discarding the rest?

Private reactions to the FAI’s strategic plan, from people within the game, have been grim:

“Kicking the can re the National Academy.”

“Leaving it to the clubs is a complete non-runner.”

“We are not like our Euro counterparts with a full-time league and a major football industry to run full-time academies.”

The blueprint for a more centralised approach already exists in Scandinavian countries, Luxembourg and up the road in Northern Ireland.

“Never waste a good crisis” said the chief executive of another Irish sporting body as the pandemic raged. Siptu members of the FAI remain in conflict with the 12-person board over a number of issues, including the shelving of a national academy in Abbotstown where education would have been a central part of shaping the majority who will not become professional athletes into their 20s.

Instead, League of Ireland clubs must create academy systems before the essential Government investment – which Taoiseach Micheál Martin approved in May 2021 – has arrived.

“I think we can step up to the plate [and fund the academies to the tune of €80,000 per club],” Martin told Off The Ball, “along with the association”.

FAI chairman Roy Barrett recently demanded that the media moves past the John Delaney era but the former Goodbody Stockbrokers chief neglected to provide any hard information explaining how this bright future will materialise.

Perhaps an Irish version of Sablon, which requires a certain level of charisma, will follow the vagueness of Ruud Dokter attempting to re-engineer Irish structures using Dutch tools.

John Morling, who recently split with Brighton and Hove Albion in unclear circumstances, having run their academy for 10 years, is reportedly top of the FAI list to become Dokter's replacement as high-performance director. Newcastle United are also rumoured to be interested in Morling, who was employed by the FAI 10 years ago, having built a working relationship with Brian Kerr.

“Brighton spend a lot of resources on our education department,” Morling told The Irish Times last September. “We have 13 part-time teachers and two full-time teachers. There is a lifestyle programme that we do with the under-23s squad, so that could be cooking. If someone is interested in producing music, we do something like that with them. If someone is interested in how to rent or own a house, we go through that with them.

“Education would be taken very seriously at the club. The message to players is ‘you got to be the best you can be at everything you are doing’. Be that an A-level or performing on the pitch.”

Another obvious connection to how Irish sport, and not just the FAI, must strive to embrace a rapidly changing society was best explained by Belgium’s greatest goalscorer, who was born to a father that played for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“A lot of players have Congolese roots,” Lukaku told CNN last year. “Some players have Spanish or Moroccan roots. It shows it doesn’t matter what race you have, as long as you work together properly, everything can be okay.”

If ground zero for Belgium was flopping at Euro 2000 – having previously produced a silver generation in the 1980s spearheaded by Nico Claesen, Eric Gerets and Jean Marie Pfaff – perhaps Irish football needs to co-host Euro 2028, as a modernised Croke Park mirrors King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, to fully understand the revolution that must happen at grassroots.

Kenny was asked this week if he’ll still be the gaffer.

“It’s a considerable distance away . . . I’m not going to make big statement about that now, at the moment. But I think [co-hosting the Euro 28] is a good thing for football in the country.

“I know there are programmes for clubs to try to improve the infrastructure because we are way behind the rest of Europe in terms of stadium facilities. Way behind in this country. We know that, but I don’t see that as conflicting with hosting Euro ‘28.”

Above all else the Euro bid forces a parallel and continual examination of club facilities and academies, especially when the FAI receive funding to modernise the GAA cathedral on Jones’s Road.

“Unfortunately,” Kenny noted, “there is nowhere else in Ireland.”