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Lukaku joins Chelsea as Belgian invasion gathers pace

By Greg Duke, CNN
  • Chelsea confirm the signing of teenage striker Romelu Lukaku on a five-year deal
  • Lukaku is the latest in a number of high-profile transfers involving Belgian players
  • Michel Sablon tells CNN the Belgian FA has worked hard on youth development

(CNN) -- On Thursday, top English Premier League side Chelsea confirmed the $22m signing of teenage striker Romelu Lukaku on a five-year contract, a transfer that continues the recent trend of young Belgian talent moving across Europe for big money.

Despite being just 18 years of age and playing only 73 matches for his club side Anderlecht, Lukaku's return of 33 goals, allied to an imposing physical frame -- Lukaku stands 1.91 meters tall -- has had scouts from around Europe drooling at his undoubted promise.

Lukaku's transfer ensures he becomes the latest in a production line of talented Belgian footballers that could see the nation return to their glory days of the mid 1980s -- when the national team advanced to the World Cup semifinals before losing to a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina, and when Anderlecht reached two UEFA Cup finals, winning one.

Aside from Lukaku, Belgium's bright young things now reads like a who's-who of the finest talent in world football.

The aim has been not to win matches, but to encourage and develop the players on an individual basis
--Belgian FA technical director Michel Sablon

Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (19) is another recent Chelsea signing, costing $9m despite just 41 games for Racing Genk, while midfielders Alex Witsel (22) and Steven Defour (23) have also left Belgium football in recent weeks, joining Portuguese giants Benfica and Porto respectively.

Winger Eden Hazard (20) helped Lille win the French league and cup double as well as becoming the youngest-ever player to be named French Player of the Year, while defender Dedryk Boyata (20), has worked his way through the Manchester City youth scheme to become a member of their squad despite the mega-millions available to manager Roberto Mancini.

Racing Genk winger Kevin De Bruyne (20) is being linked with a host of top European clubs and huge talents Marouane Fellaini (Everton, 23), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal, 25), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City, 25) and Moussa Dembele (Fulham, 24) are all playing regularly for their English clubs.

It could be argued that for a country to produce so many talented young players at one time is unusual, but when you consider Belgium's "golden generation" is spawned from a nation that is populated by less people than nearby French capital Paris, then the story becomes even more remarkable.

Due to its economic and geographical position in northern Europe, Belgium is often a country that lives in the shadow of some of its larger neighbors.

In the sporting world, Belgium's main successes over the years have come in cycling and tennis, where prestigious names such as Eddy Merckx, Tom Boonen, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters have reached the very top of their profession.

But now it's the nation's footballers who are on the verge of achieving greatness, and should the "golden generation" fulfill its potential at both club and international level, it will vindicate the Belgian Football Assocation's (KBFB) decision to put in place a long-term plan to enhance youth development.

Michel Sablon, the national technical director of the Belgian FA, told CNN: "In 2001 we developed a new vision to develop young players in Belgium.

"We gave all the clubs a brochure which detailed how to oversee player development and 95% of the clubs followed these instructions."

Sablon added: "And at national team level, we have a team for every age group, under-15, under-16, under-17 and so on.

"When we find the right combination of players I believe we can become of the top five teams in world football
--Jan Vertonghen - Ajax captain

"Each one of our teams plays and trains in the same way, with the same style and the same system, 4-3-3. The aim has been not to win matches, but to encourage and develop the players on an individual basis.

"We strive for quality in their development at every level, national, clubs and schools and the system is working. You only have to look at the national team. In the past we had four or five good players who could be competitive against the top nations, now that figure has more than doubled."

The 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico saw the Belgian national side reach its zenith, where a team inspired by midfield maestro Enzo Scifo beat the Soviet Union and Spain en route to the semifinals, losing 2-0 to eventual winners Argentina.

Since then, Belgium have failed to make their mark at various World Cups and European Championships, resulting in their seeding being affected, often resulting in them being drawn against leading nations.

A case in point being in their Euro 2012 qualifying group, where they currently lie second to a rampant Germany side.

Only success on the field can alter that situation and Jan Vertonghen, a regular in the national side and captain of Dutch giants Ajax despite being just 24, is fully aware of what the players need to achieve.

Vertonghen told CNN: "We know we have to qualify for a main tournament but there is a lot of optimism within the squad because we have been drawn with Croatia and Serbia for 2014 World Cup qualification, and we believe that gives us a good chance.

"This current squad has the quality to reach the same level as the 1986 team. We have the individual talent but we still need to blend together as complete team.

"When we find the right combination of players I believe we can become of the top five teams in world football."

With a youth system rivalling any country in the world, Vertonghen's belief could well become reality and, with the Belgian production line showing no signs of slowing down, the nation looks set to produce possibly the finest national team in their history.