It’s one of the greatest achievements in the world of sport: just how on earth did one of the smaller countries assemble the top-ranked team in the most popular game on the planet?

Belgium, a country of roughly 11 million people, wedged between France and Germany in Western Europe and dwarfed by the land mass and population size of those neighbors, first made it to the top of the FIFA rankings in 2015 and has remained firmly on the perch ever since 2018.

In the next 18 months, Belgium is hoping for a major trophy to validate their dominance on the world stage, but even without a title run at the European Championship or the 2022 World Cup, their team of international superstars must still be the envy of football administrators everywhere. And the Red Devils aren’t planning on going anywhere.

The journey began from the pit of despair, Belgium’s joy of co-hosting the 2000 European Championship ended in humiliation as they were bundled out in the group stage of the competition. Just nine days after thousands of white balloons had been released in celebration to kick off the tournament at the King Baudouin Stadium, the bubble had been emphatically burst inside the same arena.

A sun-dappled evening in Brussels finished in the gloom of a 2-0 defeat by Turkey, two goals from Hakan Sükür — the first of which will have given goalkeeper Filip de Wilde nightmares — compelled senior figures in the Belgian Football Association to conduct a root and branch review of their entire football strategy.

Luc Nilis of Belgium reacts as his country are knocked out of Euro 2000, prompting the Belgian FA into a complete overhaul. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)

A Belgium fan looks dejected as the national team is knocked out of the group stages at Euro 2000. (Matthew Ashton/EMPICS/Getty Images)

Michel Sablon was the national team’s technical director at the time. He said the organization as tournament hosts was a “big success,” yet the performance on the field was anything but. “It was not good for the players, not good for the clubs, not good for the national team,” he told CNN. “It really was the bottom.”

As it happens, Euro 2000 marked a turning point for two of the teams in action. Germany’s equally disastrous group-stage departure, featuring a rare defeat to England, prompted a thorough review of their football philosophy. It was a rebirth that would yield a World Cup victory 14 years later and Belgium was about to embark on something similar.

Sablon didn’t waste much time, working to identify a new vision for football in their country. “We did it on a Saturday and Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. We started from scratch with a white piece of paper and we developed the whole thing.”

Nothing was left to chance. Sablon explained how they recruited four universities to help research the workload of youth players in either five-a-side or eight-a-side games.

No detail was too small; for example, was nine o’clock on a Sunday morning really the best time for the kids to play? They analyzed data from 1,500 youth games, enlisted the cooperation of 70 coaches at all levels of the game and made 120 presentations to the clubs that took almost a year.

The traditional, but rigid, 4-4-2 formation was discarded in favor of a more flexible and attacking 4-3-3 line-up, which forced individual players to take more responsibility with the ball.

It was an ambitious plan, but the modest size of Belgium’s football program might have been a help, rather than a hindrance.

With barely two dozen professional clubs in the country, it was easier to get everybody singing from the same song sheet, and as a country without a history of major achievements, there was perhaps more freedom to try and less pressure for an immediate return on investment.

Every club in the country bought into it. Inevitably, there were teething problems, but Sablon believed that if they could hold their nerve, they’d be okay.

“I remember that the first game we did it with was the Under-17 team against France. We lost 7-1 and then the reaction came, of course. But a year later, in the same age category, we dominated France and beat them.”

It took time, he recalled, but in hindsight the only difficult thing was deciding to embark on the journey in the first place.

Around this time, budding young players like Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were just eight, 10 and 10 years old respectively. Nobody could have possibly known it then, but they and many other players of their generation would soon be launched on a career trajectory that would change the world game.

1 20 40 60 80 <!– –> 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021

June 2000 Rank: 30 Knocked out of home Euros in group stages… Belgian federation begins structure overhaul. October 2003 Rank: 16 Begins a run of missing five consecutive major tournaments – three Euros and two World Cups. Too early in the new youth program to see the benefits. June 2007 Rank: 71 Drops to No. 71 in the world, country’s lowest ever ranking. August 2010 Rank: 48 Lukaku and De Bruyne make senior Belgium debuts by then. Country begins to rise up the rankings as its ‘golden generation’ develops. July 2014 Rank: 5 Reaches World Cup quarterfinals for only the second time in history. November 2015 Rank: 1 Reaches FIFA world No. 1 ranking for the first time. July 2016 Rank: 2 Shock quarterfinal elimination to Wales at Euro 2016 costs Marc Wilmots his job, and Roberto Martínez is hired. July 2018 Rank: 3 Finishes third at the World Cup, knocking out Brazil along the way, and soon returns to world No. 1

<!–

Belgium’s embarrassing performance at home during Euro 2000 prompted a complete overhaul of the national team structure, but it wasn’t until a decade later that it began reaping the rewards.

–>

FIFA world ranking of the Belgian national team

Source: International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA), Transfermarkt

Romelu Lukaku is one of the most powerful forwards on the planet, a deadly finisher who has just helped Inter Milan to the Serie A title in Italy.

Lukaku has never been short on confidence, or the hunger and desire to succeed. It says a lot about his self-belief that he knew, as a 16-year-old, that he was good enough to play in the Belgian national team. It might also say something about the strength of the team at that time.

“I knew I had the whole package,” he told CNN Sport, “I thought to myself that I was different than all the other players they had up front.”

Lukaku made his international debut when he was 17 and is now his country’s record goalscorer. Back then, he was also playing with and against the future stars of the national team: “We knew that at one point, we would take over.”

The Belgian team now enjoys an air of familiarity that would be the envy of many club sides — the players go way back.

Lukaku explains how he has known many of his teammates since he was 11 or 12 years old, and they have often reminisced about the old days when they’re together on international duty.

“We used to sit all together at one table and debate who had the best youth team, who was scoring the most goals, the tournaments we used to attend. It was cool.”

Thibaut Courtois and Romelu Lukaku have been playing against each other since they were young, creating a close bond when they’re together for the national team. (Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images)

“We know each other since a long time,” said goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, telling CNN Sport: “For example, I played against Lukaku when we were 12, 13 years old. So that’s like half my lifetime. When we come together, we are a group of friends.

“I remember going to our first World Cup in Brazil, people said, ‘How will the players behave after one month being together? Will there be fights? Will there be problems between them?’ And it wasn’t, because we know each other very well. We are a group of friends. We go play golf together. We play cards together. We play PlayStation together.”

“We know each other through and through,” says Lukaku. “It’s easier when you play in a group and you’ve known almost everybody for many, many years.”

A core group of Belgium’s current squad is highly experienced; nine of them have played 80 or more games for their country, four have earned more than 100 caps and two — Lukaku and De Bruyne — are among the top 10 most valuable players in the world.

Coach Roberto Martínez notes that it is highly unusual for any national team to have so much experience across every position. Speaking in March, he told CNN, “In the last 52 games that I’ve been in charge, we’ve got an average of three goals per game … there’s a real continuity that you don’t get in international football.”

Estimated market value of players

Players with the highest average market value over the past 10 years

Squad value

Tap circle to see player value

Rollover to see player value

Year:

Note: Values are not transfer fees paid; they are estimations of player demand at any time, accounting for salaries, transfers, age, performance, league and other factors. €1 = $1.22

Source: Transfermarkt

<!– –>

<!–

Euro qualification 2019

–>

When Belgium takes to the field in this summer’s European Championships and next year’s World Cup in Qatar, they will be living proof of the benefits of diversity and inclusiveness. At a time in world history when racism, xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise, Belgium has shown the possibilities when cultural and religious differences are embraced.

“A lot of players have Congolese roots,” says Lukaku, whose father Roger played for what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “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 OK.”

“We are a strange country,” noted Courtois. “We have the Dutch part, the French part and the German part. Obviously, it’s not easy being one nation together, but I think Belgium has this beautiful sight.”

In such a small country, three different languages might be a hindrance to progress, but in Belgium it has become a strength.

Roberto Martínez has been the team’s manager since 2016 and he concurs, “I think that diversity is probably the biggest weapon that we have in our dressing room. You always get different views, different solutions. You’re very aware in a young age that in life you can do things in many, many ways; that is the way that you face adversity.”

Martínez is Spanish, but he understands the advantages of broadening one’s horizons at an early age. He explains how he spent most of his professional career in Britain before moving to Belgium with his Scottish wife, and he can recognize that one of Belgium’s biggest strengths is that its players have traveled the world and have then brought all that experience home.

“You have to get out of your comfort zone,” says Lukaku. “The players that are here went out of their comfort zone to make a career for themselves. We left and we tested ourselves, we took a risk and that is what football has to be.”

2000 squad*: Share of Belgian national team players at clubs worldwide

2000 squad*: Share of Champions League clubs

2021 squad*: Share of Belgian national team players at clubs worldwide

2021 squad*: Share of Champions League clubs

<!–

Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic Squad graphic

–>

*The 2000 squad is from a World Cup qualifier in September 2000 and the 2021 squad is for the upcoming Euros.
Note: numbers are rounded, so percentages may not add up to a hundred.
Source: Royal Belgian Football Association, The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)

<!–

2000 squad*

–> <!–

2021 squad*

–>

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, there was almost no player playing outside Belgium,” observed Courtois, “Now, almost everyone is playing in one of the biggest teams in the world.”

Courtois has won major trophies with both Madrid clubs (Atlético and Real) plus two Premier League titles with Chelsea in England. De Bruyne has become one of the best players in the world at Manchester City, where his trophy count has just reached double digits; Hazard has won domestic league titles in three different countries and the Europa League twice with Chelsea; Lukaku has played for Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United and is now a champion in Italy.

That’s to say nothing of the exploits of defenders Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Jan Vertonghen (Benfica) and Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), midfielders Youri Tielemans (Leicester City) and Eden’s brother Thorgan Hazard (Dortmund) and forwards Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Michy Batshuayi, who played at Crystal Palace last season on loan from Chelsea.

Belgium’s professional football pyramid, where many of these players began their careers, can only support two leagues and 26 teams, but so prodigious is their talent development that many Belgian players could walk into any team in the world and it’s the nature of their upbringing that’s helped make it possible.

“When Marc Wilmots was the coach [from 2012-2016], he spoke in Dutch and partly in French,” Lukaku explains. “Now, with Roberto Martínez, everybody speaks English, but we speak to each other in French and Dutch.”

“There’s not a problem about learning languages at the age of four or five years old,” observes Martínez, “I see kids speaking three and four languages and it’s incredible how that opens up. The Belgian wants to be of service to the group.

“I would say that that’s the biggest strength of the Belgian as a footballer. He will just walk into the dressing room and try to be valuable. It is not a cultural barrier.”

<!–