ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — As with every one of these journeys that is transformed by hindsight into a road map, Belgium's route to the World Cup semifinals started out in bitter disappointment. Twenty years ago, the country sent an industrious, ...
For those tasked with finding a way to consistently produce outstanding young players, it is much more difficult to put the same question to Croatia. What can be taken from the Croatian model? That sometimes exceptionally gifted players emerge because of the challenges they face, not despite them; that truly transcendent talent, like that of Modric, does not require immaculate training fields or a perfectly-plotted development pathway to shine; that, sometimes, there is no order in the chaos.
Besides, there is perhaps a greater truth in Croatia’s origin myth than there is in Belgium’s. De Bruyne was unlikely to win many friends at his country’s association when he offered his own explanation for how this generation came together: “Because we were given the chance to play in other countries,” he said.
More than a cursory glance of the squad bears him out. Three of Martínez’s players — Vertonghen, Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen — left Belgium for Ajax, in the Netherlands, when they were teenagers; Mousa Dembélé, the midfielder, left for the Dutch club Willem II and then AZ Alkmaar at the same age.
Eden Hazard and his brother Thorgan both started their professional careers in France, with Lille and Lens. Many more left Belgium after just a couple of years in the Jupiler League, the country’s top flight, for the brighter lights and sterner tests in France, Germany and, in particular, England. De Bruyne and Lukaku, for example, both signed with Chelsea after just a couple of years of senior soccer in Belgium.
“We have always had talent,” De Bruyne said. “But for 10 or 15 years there was nobody playing outside of Belgium. Then Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini went abroad, did well, and people started recruiting players from Belgium, and they are still recruiting them now.”
This Belgium team is not a uniquely Belgian creation: Its genesis is European. France, the Netherlands and England have all played a role, too, in allowing it to flourish.
The same could be said of Croatia: Modric and Rakitic and Ivan Perisic are the players they are because of the teams they have played for and the players they have played with and the coaches who have trained them.
It is soccer’s open market, its porous borders and, most of all, its glorious arbitrariness that explain best why Belgium, and Croatia, are two games away from immortality when bigger, richer nations have long since departed. That is the lesson both can teach those nations who see in them a map to be followed, a blueprint to be adopted: that sometimes, there is no signal. Occasionally, it is just noise.
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