While not a universally popular figure, Georges Leekens is nevertheless the current guardian of a rejuvenated Belgian national team. He readily admits that Turkey have the better opportunity to qualify for the Euro 2012 play-offs after last night’s 1-1 draw but was not too downbeat, aware of the bigger picture. The side are a work in progress, they did have the better of the Turkey game and there is still a lot to come. Happily, while there is disappointment, the public still looks to be behind the team. One possible cause for concern is the ongoing controversy surrounding Eden Hazard, who failed to live up to the admittedly sky-high expectations of him among the public.
With the scores locked at 1-1 and the Rode Duivels in need of greater punch in the front three in order to force a winner, Leekens hooked the native of La Louvière and brought on Utrecht’s Dries Mertens in his stead. Mertens has the ability to change the game off the bench and contributed a total of 20 assists in the just completed season for the Domstedelingen. Leekens’ substitution paid dividends as the former AGOVV star turned neatly inside the penalty box, luring Arda Turan into the foul. As it happened, Axel Witsel proceeded to sky the penalty over the crossbar but Mertens had made his impact.
When Hazard was taken off, he went down the tunnel accompanied by a member of staff and proceeded to get changed before being spotted by television cameras scoffing a hamburger outside the stadium before the final whistle had been blown.
Leekens sounded a cautionary note in relation to Hazard:
“The pressure on Eden was particularly great. Everyone expected him to decide this game off his own bat. The bar was therefore set very high. Eden was himself disappointed over his performance,” he told gathering journalists the morning after the game.
On Monday’s Extra Time, screened on Belgian television channel Canvas, he said that while it was not the cleverest course of action for Hazard, he would not come down on the winger like a ton of bricks:
“The only problem I have with the hamburger is that it does not set a good example for the youth and it is not a good signal for someone who is an ambassador for the Rode Duivels. But maybe it was better than he went outside first because you can sometimes to stupid things when you are emotional.”
Hazard lined up as one of the two wide players in the three-pronged attack, beginning on the right-hand side and switching sides on occasions with Twente’s Nacer Chadli. The LOSC title winner played his part in Belgium’s goal when he picked up on an airshot from Caglar Birinci and rolled it back to Steven Defour. Defour’s cross was headed back to Marvin Ogunjimi by Chadli and the Genk striker made no mistake second time around. His other major moment in the game was indeed his last action before the substitution, when he wormed his way past two Turkish defenders before shooting over the crossbar. Maybe the timing of the change was thus a little harsh on him but the needs of the team had to come first.
In spite of his superb club form, which saw them named as the French Player of the Year for his exploits in Ligue 1, Hazard never hit the heights against Turkey, which the fans of les Dogues have come to expect. He has had a long season and has had to deal with incessant speculation over his future. Hazard was a member of Lille’s terrific attacking triumvirate, which contributed 47 of their 68 goals. Less prolific as a goalscorer than surprise package Moussa Sow or Gervinho, he nevertheless chipped in with seven goals and ten assists. His finest strike was undoubtedly the 35-yard cracker, which silenced 60,000 in the Stade Velodrome as Lille won away to title rivals Olympique de Marseille in March.
In addition, the long-running spat between his club coach Rudi Garcia and Leekens cannot have helped matters. Lille’s boss has been nothing short of forthright in expressing his disapproval at how his young star has been handled at international level, taking a particular dislike to Leekens’ comments that Ligue 1 was not necessarily the greatest standard of football by which to judge Hazard. He also hit out at Leekens’ reluctance to throw Hazard on from the start and at Leekens’ criticism of the player before last autumn’s international against Kazakhstan. Hazard himself has acknowledged that he is not the greatest trainer in the world and much prefers to play matches.
There is an historical precedent in Belgian football from World Cup 98 when Enzo Scifo was very much the numero uno in the Diables Rouges’ midfield. And what of the coach? Only one Georges Leekens. Leekens clashed with Scifo as he wanted to impose his own vision on the team and did not take kindly to larger than life figures. In the must-win third group game against South Korea, Belgium were leading 1-0 thanks to an early goal from Luc Nilis. Leekens decided to take Scifo off and replace him with ultimate team-man Franky van der Elst. South Korea equalised seven minutes later and helped send the Belgians on their short way home from France.
Leekens is a deeply experienced coach, whose knowledge spans more than just football – he has released a book on leadership – but back then he perhaps could have handled the situation better. A direct comparison can be drawn with the Hazard affair in the sense that a gifted player has been able to be truly integrated into the system, however, there are two important differences.
Firstly, Scifo was in the twilight of his career, playing in his fourth World Cup (only the aforementioned van der Elst and Marc Wilmots also achieved this for Belgium) and was a player in decline, although he would go on to have a few years at club level for Anderlecht and Charleroi. He had no player to look up to as a role model and furthermore he was a player who relied a great deal on his considerable natural talent, and so when that began to fade, he had little recourse to a Plan B. Hazard, who is hopefully at the start of what will be a glittering career at club and international level, has experienced and top quality individuals whom he can aspire to – such as the ever-impressive Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen, although veterans Timmy Simons and Daniel van Buyten may not figure too much more in Leekens’ plans.
Secondly, if Scifo is to be believed, Leekens is a changed man. The Belgian of Italian roots, who recently complained that he is continually being overlooked for coaching posts, feels that the former KAA Gent, Anderlecht and Kortrijk coach has mellowed somewhat:
“I feel that he is very different, different in his approach. He has admitted it himself. When he began as a coach, he was very demanding. Now he has understood that what it is important is not his own personality but the team,” he said last October.
More recently, Scifo told Het Nieuwsblad that any differences between the two parties need to be resolved in order to prevent the matter getting out of hand and derailing any slight chances the Belgian team has of appearing next summer in Poland and Ukraine:
“Leekens and I have settled our differences now but everyone has been speaking to me about it since Friday evening. I can well understand that Eden was disappointed but there is too much expected of him. The pressure is too great. Do not forget that he is just 20. It is in the interest of Belgium and the national team that Eden and Georges sort it out. By themselves, away from the media spotlight. No-one wants to see a new polarising dispute. We must learn to keep calm.”
Leekens has indicated that face-to-face talks will indeed take place in a few weeks once the players have returned from their summer holidays.
Despite the disappointing result against Turkey and the inexperienced nature of many of the players – and indeed the absences of Fellaini, Dembélé and Lukaku, I maintain that expectations were not too high – of the team as a whole – but everyone’s going to have to be patient with Eden Hazard if he is to become the international star Belgium crave. I think Enzo Scifo spoke for us all and few are in a better position to know.