De Sart wants Belgium's backingFriday 8 June 2007
by David Bano & Michael Harrold
Belgian supporters do not traditionally come out in numbers to support the Under-21 side, but coach Jean-François de Sart is confident of changing that this month. With the UEFA European Under-21 Championship being played on their doorstep, De Sart is hopeful they will get behind an exciting young team in the Netherlands.
Belgian youth teams have provided more to shout about than the senior national side in recent years. Belgium's impressive performance at last month's UEFA European Under-17 championship gave cause for optimism, a feeling matched by a U21 side that is already making waves. Ten of De Sart's squad were involved in the Red Devils' UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier against Finland on Wednesday and they look set to make up the bulk of the side in the years ahead. The U21 finals will be an important stepping stone on that journey.
"We will go to the Netherlands to prove we are a quality side," De Sart told uefa.com. "We will try to ensure every player is at their peak so they can show the whole of Europe how good they are.If we are good enough and can get beyond the group, why not? But the main objective is to make a point on an individual level."
Captain Maarten Martens has been doing that all season with AZ Alkmaar and the likes of Marouane Fellaini, Anthony Vanden Borre and Tom De Mul, already all full internationals, are also unlikely to pass up the chance to live up to growing reputations. They also have a point to prove. When Belgium kick off their campaign against Portugal on Sunday, they will be eager to make up for lost time. Denied a place in the 2006 tournament by a last-gasp goal in their play-off against Ukraine, the wait to make amends has been a long one.
"We were all really down after losing in the play-offs last year," De Sart said. "We were knocked out in the last seconds against Ukraine even though we had proved over the two legs that we were the better side. The greatest regret was watching Ukraine reach the final in Portugal. It was tough, and the squad, which has remained effectively unchanged, was determined to qualify for the tournament in the Netherlands. This time around we did it."
De Sart had been involved in youth coaching with Belgium since 1995 and stepped up to the U21 side eight years ago. Change has been a major part of the job. He said: "That's the beauty of being in charge of the national side. Every two years you have to start again with a new squad and put certain things in place, create a good team spirit. It's a very exciting challenge."
With a place in the 2008 Olympics on offer for the four semi-finalists, that challenge is greater than ever. "We're hoping to get to the Olympic Games, something that the Belgian Olympic Committee has really got behind, so we hope Belgian fans will also be there for us in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, Belgian fans don't traditionally go to watch the U21s but we hope that this time our qualification has created a certain amount of sympathy for our cause."
©uefa.com 1998-2007. All rights reserved.