Belgium, a footballing nation often living in the shadows of illustrious neighbours France & Holland. Read on to see why this could soon change..

Belgium is a footballing nation that has often lived in the shadows of its more illustrious neighbours such as France and the Netherlands. But the future of their game is certainly on the rise. With more and more Belgian footballers making their way in to the biggest leagues in Europe, the standard of the national side and the domestic league should improve.

The Belgian Pro League has become more competitive as of late. It is now more than just Anderlecht or Club Brugge competing in the Champions League. Standard Liege gave Arsenal a major scare a few seasons back, as well taking Liverpool to extra-time in the final qualifying round the year before. This season we have also seen the rise of Genk, who have picked up credible points in both home games against Chelsea and Valencia.

The Belgian national team just missed out on the playoffs for Euro 2012, finishing behind Germany and Turkey in their group. The aim now must be to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. With Croatia and Serbia as the seeded teams in their group, there is no reason why they can’t challenge for the top spot.

This feeling intensifies when you look at the players Belgium have at their disposal and more importantly their ages. Discounting the experience of Daniel Van Buyten and Timmy Simons, the average age of the squad would be 23 years old. With the next World Cup three years away, it should come at a good time for the Belgians.

Looking at their squad a little more closely, fighting for the goalkeeping jersey are Simon Mignolet, 23, and Thibaut Courtois, 19. In those two goalkeepers they have unlimited potential. Having seen both play in the flesh, it is fair to say that they are both outstanding goalkeepers. Mignolet was impressive last season and is a top shot-stopper. Watching Courtios play against Valencia, it was easy to notice both his agility and how comfortable he was on the ball.

In defence, Belgium boasts many big names including captain Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen. In my opinion, these are two of the best central defenders in the Premier League and, with both at 25, have their best years ahead of them. On top of these two, they have the Ajax pair Jan Vertonghen, 24, and Toby Alderweireld, as well as Dedryck Boyata, Nicolas Lombaerts, and Sebastien Pocognoli, all of whom are in their early 20’s.

Their midfield is also full of big names playing all over Europe. 23 year-old Marouane Felliani has consistently performed since his move to Everton a four seasons ago. In the Eredivise they have attacking midfielders Dries Mertens 24, and Nacer Chadli 22, turning out. Mertens moved to PSV this summer and has already scored an impressive 11 goals this term.

Unfortunately for the Belgian Pro League, two of the country’s finest midfielders left Standard Liege for Portugal this summer. Steven Defour, 23, went to Porto, while Alex Witsel, 22, completed a move to Benfica. Both players had been linked with some of Europe’s top clubs in previous seasons, and their promise looks to be well founded with both already having opened their accounts for their new sides.

In addition to these two, there are a couple of youngsters hoping to take over the tag of Belgium’s brightest talent still competing in their homeland. Kevin De Bruyne, 20, and Yassine El Ghanassy, 21, may only have 3 full caps between them, but plenty more is expected to come from these two. The supporting cast in the Pro League also includes Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe.

Last but by no means least are the striking options Belgium have. The two that spring to mind are Eden Hazard of Lille and Romelu Lukaku, a new signing at Chelsea. Although they are very different types of player, the pair have the potential to be two of the best players in Belgian history. Hazard is seemingly certain to move to England or Spain this summer after being voted the Ligue 1 Player of the Season 2010/11.

                                                                       Eden Hazard in action against Germany

Lukaku managed to rack up 41 goals in 98 games for Anderlecht, all the more impressive considering he was only 16 when he began turning out for the Belgian club. Besides Hazard and Lukaku, the Rode Duilvels (Red Devils), also have the likes of Moussa Dembele of Fulham and Olympiakos’ Kevin Mirallas.

When considering some of the ages and the clubs some of these players now play for, the Belgian national team can only improve. With the next set of players destined to move to Europe’s biggest leagues this summer, expect to be seeing their names a lot more frequently.

Interestingly, Belgium U21’s host their English counterparts this evening, providing another stage to showcase their talents. The likes of Ziguy Babangida, Funso Ojo, and Christian Benteke will be keen to make an impression and put themselves in the shop window.

If this crop of young players fail to live up to their potential, there is always 15 year-old wonder kid Zakaria Bakkali. He scored four times and grabbed an assist in a recent game for Belgium U16’s. The PSV youngster has already been linked with Manchester City, and if you watch his third and fourth goals you’d understand why.