AS Scottish football embarks upon another bout of navel gazing in the aftermath of a chastening international break, Hibernian midfielder Stephane Omeonga has offered an insight into the practices that have seen Belgium join the world elite.
Omeonga, on loan from Serie A side Genoa, is currently part of the Red Devils’ under-21 set-up under head coach Johan Walem and, despite suffering a 3-2 defeat against Denmark last week, hopes are high for another wave of teenage talent.
Belgium are currently basking in the glow of a golden generation, with Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany spearheading a charge to the World Cup semi-final last summer.
The likes of Youri Tielemans, 21, and Leander Dendoncker, 23, are already valuable cogs in the senior set-up as the production line of talent shows no sign of drying up. It is an ominous proposition for Scotland, who face Belgium in Euro 2020 qualifying in June.
Former Anderlecht and Standard Liege kid Omeonga believes a firm focus on technical ability, prioritising the development of elite coaches and the faith shown in youngsters at domestic level and have been key in Belgium’s progress in recent years.
He said: “I cannot say what Scotland is doing wrong, but what Belgium is doing well is the technical part of the game.
“They invest a lot of money in the youth players and the international squads are so good through the age groups because the clubs invest on the structure and devote time to youth development.
“I remember when I was 14, I was training seven times a week, which is a lot for a young player and that brings results. There is definitely a focus on skill and technique.
“Club give young players an opportunity in the league as well but sometimes it is because these are special players – I wasn’t in the first-team at 16!
“Scottish football does not need to change, because I learned a lot when I came here about the pace and intensity of the football. Maybe just expand and put more focus on technical things. There are good parts and bad parts of the game here.”
Omeonga is also willing to accept that Belgium has benefited from a degree of good fortune, with the natural gifts of Hazard and Lukaku difficult to replicate, regardless of the coaching standard of facilities available.
He smiled: “The senior squad for Belgium is just amazing. You are talking about [Eden] Hazard, [Kevin] De Bruyne and other major, special players. The Scottish team cannot compare themselves to that sort of opponent because it is difficult for any country to produce those players.”
The combative midfielder, who has shone in recent outings after a sluggish start following his January arrival, has made no secret of his own desire to remain part of the Belgium set-up, with the under-21 European Championships on the horizon this summer.
His determination to be part of that squad drove his search for first-team football during the winter transfer window and he is desperate to make his mark at the youth showpiece in Italy.
Omeonga continued: “I was speaking with a friend recently and I told him: ‘Every game is a final for me right now’.
“I need to be in that Belgium under-21 squad in the summer and we have some big goals to achieve at Hibs. I think the squad for the Euros is announced at the end of May and it definitely depends on how I finish the season at Hibs.
“When I went back to Belgium the manager [Walem] told me that he was watching all of the games that I have played – except Motherwell, which was my best performance!
“That is a big boost for my confidence and I know that this coach does not like to change his group too much, so I have more chance to be in the squad. It all depends on me.”
A more immediate concern is the trip to Livingston this evening, as Omeonga seeks to celebrate his birthday week in style after turning 23 on Wednesday – and receiving an unwanted surprise from the club.
He laughed: “Celebrating my birthday in Scotland was similar – but in Belgium you don’t get fined if you don’t bring cake! That happened to me. It is on the chart of fines; if you don’t bring cake then you get a fine.”
Addressing suggestions Hibs could seek to make his loan from Genoa permanent, Omeonga added: “The end of the season is too far to think about for me. From the moment I have not heard from Genoa.
“Anything can happen next year and it all depends on me. If I am playing at a good level, then some good things can happen for me next season.”