Louis van Gaal insists he is not looking past the World Cup before the Netherlands’ clash with the USA in the last 16, but he did little on Friday to shoot down the possibility of a switch to Belgium after the tournament.
“We want to become world champions so we’ve got another four matches ahead of us and then we’ll see whether there are any offers on the table,” Van Gaal said through a translator. “If we become world champions, everybody is so opportunistic in this football world that there will be offers. I know that full well.
“But for the moment we are not world champions. And if I have to believe the Dutch media, we will never become world champions.”
Van Gaal further acknowledged the rumblings that have linked him with the vacancy, saying: “Belgium is a wonderful country with really friendly people – [Knokke-Heist] is a wonderful beach town – so yes I’ve thought about it.”
Pressed to expand on what it would take for him to take the job, Van Gaal said that Belgium’s Football Association needed to persuade his wife, Truus, in order to close the deal.
“You have to convince Truus,” Van Gaal said. “Joking aside, I am always at liberty to take decisions myself but there are certain countries that I won’t move to, and my wife, Truus, will certainly not move to.”
The speculation did not end with Belgium. Asked whether taking the reins of an African side would pass muster with his wife, Van Gaal again left the door open: “I don’t think so, but you’ve got to keep your options open.”
The team are 18 games unbeaten since then, having conceded only 14 times, making him an in-demand figure, with Ronald Koeman confirmed as his successor. But despite all the chatter on Friday over his future, Van Gaal insisted his eyes were fixed on the present.
“USA has demonstrated that it has an excellent team, I would say even one of the best teams,” Van Gaal said. “It’s going to be a very tough match but it’s nothing we can’t overcome. We also have a good team.”
The truth is Romelu Lukaku probably should have departed the pitch cradling the match ball but the painful reality is the striker left empty-handed, his hat-trick of second-half misses condemning Belgium to a damning and premature World Cup exit. The worst one of all came deep into stoppage time. Thorgan Hazard crossed from the right and an unmarked Lukaku made a beeline for the six-yard box but instead of converting from close range the ball bumbled off of his chest and into the arms of the Croatia goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic. Thierry Henry, one of Roberto Martínez’s assistants, covered his eyes with his tracksuit top. Thomas Meunier chucked a water bottle into the ground. Yannick Carrasco threw a towel over his face. At the final whistle, Lukaku punched through the perspex encasing the Belgium dugout in pure rage before being consoled by Youri Tielemans.
Cue the jokes about Lukaku finally hitting the target. Toby Alderweireld, one of those who surely will not return to this stage, lay on the turf. In the stands a very much on-brand Belgium supporter dressed, naturally, as a bright yellow cone of chips stood hands in pockets in disbelief. Some Belgium fans earlier jeered the arrival of Eden Hazard who entered from the substitutes’ bench for the final seven minutes. For Belgium’s golden generation, this last hurrah fell so painfully flat and afterwards Martínez confirmed this unedifying exit would represent his last game in charge. “I can’t carry on,” he said. Croatia, runners-up four years ago, go through to play the winners of Group E in the last 16, most likely Spain.
In mitigation, Lukaku, who also cannoned a shot against a post, arrived in Qatar on the back of two substitute appearances since August. Perhaps it was no surprise the Internazionale striker was rusty. Not that it makes the circumstances surrounding Belgium’s deeply underwhelming tournament any easier to explain.
At the outset Kevin De Bruyne had dismissed Belgium’s chances of lifting the trophy and in recent days Belgium had to play down talk of rifts after Hazard criticised the sluggish makeup of an ageing defence. The sight of Martínez wildly protesting at the fourth official at the failure to award a back pass against the impressive Josko Gvardiol epitomised the frustrations.
That a Mexican wave rippled around this ground on 41 minutes as Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen tossed the ball from side to side spoke volumes of the entertainment on offer in a first half where the only drama was a VAR review that led the referee, Anthony Taylor, to revoke the award of a Croatia penalty. Vertonghen headed a free-kick clear from the edge of the six-yard box but when Carrasco failed to trap the ball he proceeded to foul Andrej Kramaric, prompting Taylor to point to the spot. Luka Modric grabbed the ball and Croatia’s substitutes lined the edge of the technical area in anticipation – if not expectation – but then Taylor visited the pitchside VAR monitor, which detailed Dejan Lovren was offside when challenging Vertonghen inside the box. The big screens at either end showing AI-technology replays emphasised the tightness of the call.
At 35 Vertonghen was the oldest player in a starting lineup with the eldest average age at a World Cup since Australia’s against Germany in 2010. Martínez’s big call was to leave Eden Hazard on the bench until the 87th minute, with the Real Madrid forward among four players dropped after defeat to Morocco. Dries Mertens and Leandro Trossard made their first starts of the tournament. At almost 27 the Leicester City full-back Timothy Castagne was the puppy of the side.
Belgium made a shaky start – Ivan Perisic curled a shot wide inside 11 seconds after being released by Modric and a minute later Leander Dendoncker was chasing a red-and-white chequered Croatia shirt facing his own goal – and while they roused Martínez changed personnel and system at half-time, the introduction of Lukaku the trigger for a switch to a 3-4-3. Lukaku’s presence gave Croatia something to think about and the defender Gvardiol panicked and stuck out his left leg at the front post to prevent De Bruyne’s cross from reaching the lurking Lukaku. A minute later Lukaku sent a tame header at Livakovic from a De Bruyne cross. Then he sent a header over from another De Bruyne cross, although the offside flag would have ensured any celebrations were shortlived.
But as this game, which burst into life in the second half, ticked towards the hour mark Belgium stitched together a slick move, from which they will wonder how they did not prosper. Particularly Lukaku. De Bruyne angled a wonderful pass, as if by subterfuge, into Carrasco, whose fine first touch allowed him to tip-toe between two Croatia defenders and mosey towards goal.
Carrasco seemed to do everything right but his shot was blocked by the boot of the outstretched Josip Juranovic, who darted in front of Livakovic in desperation. The ball then spiralled invitingly across the box for Lukaku but he could only send a rasping strike against Livakovic’s left post. The maddening thing for Lukaku and Belgium was that worse – much worse – was still to come.
Kevin De Bruyne called it right, this ageing Belgium team have no chance of winning the World Cup on current form. Morocco succeeded where Canada failed in punishing another flat display from the team ranked second in the world to record their first victory at a World Cup since beating Scotland in 1998.
Two substitutes, Abdelhamid Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal, scored the goals that gave Morocco only their third ever win on the World Cup stage and sparked wild celebrations all around the Al Thumama Stadium. It was thoroughly deserved. Morocco were incisive while Belgium lacked ideas, energetic while Belgium had lead in their legs, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard especially, and solid in defence while even Thibaut Courtois creaked in the Belgium goal. Roberto Martínez’s team can still qualify for the last 16 but they look a fading shadow of the side that finished third in Russia in 2018.
A stirring rendition of the Moroccan national anthem confirmed the vast majority of the stadium were supporting the north African team. Morocco’s every touch was met with impassioned screams; Belgium’s with jeers and whistles. Belgium attempted to take the sting out of the crowd by controlling the tempo and dominating possession, 78% of it in the opening 15 minutes alone. That is one way of describing the Belgian performance. Another is that they bored everyone to tears.
Martínez’s team initially responded to their laboured and lucky opening win over Canada. The Belgium manager reverted to a back four and made three changes including the introduction of Amadou Onana, who was largely responsible for the modest second-half improvement against the Canadians. This time they started on the front foot, with Michy Batshuayi forcing a fine early save out of Munir El Kajoui after latching on to Thorgan Hazard’s threaded pass into the box, but mostly it was possession football with no penetration.
Onana headed over from close range after meeting Thorgan Hazard’s inswinging corner with a towering leap. The Everton midfielder was also harshly booked for accidentally catching Azzedine Ounahi with an arm as they jumped for a header. Onana’s second booking of the competition means he will miss Belgium’s final group match against Croatia.
Morocco were forced to change their goalkeeper moments before kick-off when Yassine Bounou fell ill. Bono, as he is more commonly known, lined up for the national anthem but was replaced by the time Morocco gathered for their team photograph. “With or without you?” the Morocco head coach, Walid Regragui, might possibly have asked his first-choice keeper before summonsing El Kajoui from the bench.
Hakim Ziyech was hugely influential for a Morocco side whose confidence and sense of adventure increased as the contest developed. Pinpoint crossfield passes between the Chelsea winger on the right and former Southampton midfielder Sofiane Boufal on the left opened up the Belgium defence several times. Selim Amallah volleyed over after one such move while right-back Achraf Hakimi wasted a good opening when blazing wide from a tight angle with striker Youssef En-Nesyri waiting for a cross in the middle.
Morocco believed they had their first goal of the World Cup on the cusp of half-time after Ziyech was fouled by Thorgan Hazard just outside the penalty area. Ziyech took the free-kick himself and whipped it goalwards. Courtois, unsighted by the inrushing Morocco duo of Romain Saïss and Hakimi, was deceived by the flight and a possible touch off Saïss. The ball squirmed through his grasp and over the line but the Real Madrid keeper’s embarrassment, and the wild Morocco celebrations, were curtailed by VAR. Saïss’s shoulder was offside and the Mexican referee César Arturo Ramos disallowed Ziyech’s strike following a pitch-side review.
Courtois would not be spared when Morocco repeated the routine with 17 minutes of normal time remaining. After a Thomas Meunier foul on the right, substitute Sabiri drilled a free-kick towards Saïss moving in at the near post. The central defender, onside this time, pulled his midriff out of the way of Sabiri’s delivery and Belgium’s goalkeeper was deceived once again. The ball flew under his grasp and he would not be spared by VAR on this occasion.
Martínez had already made several substitutions in an attempt to inject an end product into Belgium’s display. They did not succeed, although El Kajoui answered his country’s call to save from Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Batshuayi.
Panic was rising in the stands as Belgium pressed for a late equaliser and five minutes of stoppage time were added. It turned to pandemonium when Ziyech escaped down the right and pulled the ball back for Aboukhlal who, allowed too much space inside the area by Axel Witsel, swept a superb finish in to the top corner. Morocco’s exhausted players collapsed to the ground when the final whistle sounded minutes later. They were soon back on their feet to join the party in the stands.
Confession. I’m a Manchester City fan. Another confession. Kevin De Bruyne is my favourite player. In 30 years of journalism, I’ve never interviewed a City player. Don’t meet your heroes, they say. The whole thing is discombobulating. De Bruyne – one of the world’s great players – has agreed to a rare interview. But there’s a caveat. If you talk to me, he says, you also talk to my wife, my kids, you do it at our home and you get to know us all. Usually, it’s the opposite – you don’t talk to my family, you don’t come to my home, it’s all about the work rather than the private life. Strange.
We meet a few weeks before the start of the World Cup. He’s beginning to think about it. But in typical De Bruyne fashion he dispenses with diplomacy and tells it as it is. No, he’s not happy about it being in Qatar. Yes, it is a distraction from the Premier League. No, he doesn’t think Belgium have much chance of winning.
Now he’s out there hoping to prove himself wrong.
At his best on the pitch, virtually everything is channelled through him. Often he will start a move by winning the ball and running with it in the same movement. Though he plays in the centre, he sets up goals by overlapping on the wing to put in crosses of such pace, swerve and accuracy that they are impossible to defend. And while goal-scoring isn’t his main thing (he prefers to assist), last season, when he scored four goals against Wolves, commentator Alistair Mann quivered: “Kevin, stop it! I’m running out of superlatives for you!”
In 2020, De Bruyne became the first City men’s player to win the prestigious PFA Player of the Year, and won it again the following season. In September, he was named the world’s best passer in the video game Fifa 23. Earlier this month, the game Football Manager 2023 ranked him the greatest player in the world.
De Bruyne doesn’t run with the football pack. We never see him out getting into trouble. In fact, we pretty much never see him. Which makes today even stranger. But it also makes a kind of sense. “Away from football, it’s all about family,” he says. “This is my life.”
Michèle LaCroix, AKA Mrs De Bruyne, greets me at the door. She apologises for still being in her bathrobe, shows me in and makes coffee. The house is everything you’d expect: huge driveway, extension the size of a small hotel, artworks galore, carpets like quicksand. Coco, the white-grey cat, is so perfectly coordinated, you wonder whether she came with the furnishings. Yet it’s also homely. Toys spill out of the playroom and De Bruyne’s office obviously doubled up as the home-schoolroom in the pandemic (one wall is plastered with spelling tests).
De Bruyne is nowhere to be seen, so LaCroix introduces me to Coco, the three children and her mother. We chat and drink, and it’s only after a while that I realise De Bruyne is also now in the kitchen. He is wearing a brown tracksuit, has a wispy gingerish beard and bears more than a passing resemblance to his cartoon compatriot Tintin. He glides through his house like a ghost: if he hadn’t shaken my hand and introduced himself, I probably wouldn’t have registered his presence. He floats off to the fridge, takes out slices of white Hovis, makes himself a mustard sandwich, heats up green soup and starts eating. All without a murmur. De Bruyne is a paradox. He is both famously shy and famously outspoken. A number of stories shape the mythology around him. The first is that at eight he turns to his father and says he wants to leave his club, KVV Drogen, because the training sessions at Ghent, another local club, are better. Second, now playing for Ghent, he gets so enraged when told off for not helping to clear up the pitch that he grabs one of the posts and refuses to let go. Three adults try to pull him away but fail, and his coach, Frank De Leyn, has to stay with him because De Bruyne tells him he is planning to hold on all night.
Fast forward a few years for another classic tale: De Bruyne is on the verge of the first team at rival Belgian club Genk, living there with a foster family during the week, when they decide, two years in, that they don’t want him to live with them any more because he doesn’t fit in; he’s too quiet. Finally, there is the time, aged just 20, when he gives a half-time interview ripping into his Genk teammates for shirking: “I’m ashamed of them. I suggest that those who don’t have a desire to play just leave,” he says at the time.
His management team are also here today and he’s talking to them in a quiet, flat voice. It’s so understated you almost tune out. Then you hear what he’s saying. Asked if Belgium can win the World Cup, he says, “No chance, we’re too old.” It’s only seven months ago that Belgium were ranked No 1 in the world. De Bruyne says that because the tournament is being played in Qatar in mid-season, it doesn’t feel like a real World Cup. One of his reps says it must be a dream playing with Erling Haaland, the extraordinarily prolific striker at City. “Ach, it’s like any forward.” Even he thinks his response is underwhelming. “He is so quick, though,” he adds.
He finishes his soup, cuts up some blackberries and grapes for baby Suri, who is sitting in her highchair having her hair primped for the photoshoot. He says his childhood was so different from that of his children. His father worked in a factory painting trains, his mother was a housewife, and he describes his background as “lower-middle class”. What was he like at school? “I was OK. Smart enough to know how much I needed to do and to finish it. I left at 18 with a diploma.”
I ask why so many European footballers seem better educated than their British counterparts. Perhaps the difference is languages, he says. “There are a lot of people from different countries who speak two or three languages, where English players usually only speak English. I come from a country where by 13 you are studying Dutch, French and English.” With languages, perhaps comes wisdom and humility – an ability to put yourself in the shoes of others, a knowledge that your way is not the only way. He smiles. The Belgian way was never going to be the only way, he says. “Everybody in Belgium always watches English TV anyway!”
I tell him I recently watched footage of him playing as a young boy and his style has hardly changed. Even if you blocked out his face, it could only be De Bruyne. “I know!” He takes out his phone and compares two photographs. “This is from a couple of months ago when I scored against Bournemouth. Look at the way I kick the ball. And this is a picture of me shooting when I was a kid. Identical! Same technique!”
Are Mason, six, and Rome, almost four, promising footballers? “No,” he says. “They don’t play.” Are they not interested? “I don’t know,” he says, as if he’s never considered it. “They like to go to the football. My oldest plays piano a bit and likes to run. He’s a good runner.”
I ask about the famous stories. Did you really cling to the goalpost and refuse to budge? “I think the stories are a bit made up.” So it’s not true? “I don’t remember it. It could be true!” Does it sound like him ? He grins. “I was a little bit stubborn, yeah. I let most things go, but when I do say something I am outspoken. I know now when you speak as a teenager or a kid to an adult with an opinion, people don’t like it … even if it’s true.”
Was that the case when you suggested your Genk teammates were not trying? De Bruyne pinkens. He often flushes like this – when he’s embarrassed, when he’s upset on the pitch and when he’s made one of his superhuman runs. “Yes! The problem is the fans like that and other people like that, but the team doesn’t.”
A hairdresser is here to give everyone a trim before the photoshoot. While it’s De Bruyne’s turn, I chat to LaCroix. She’s a model, a social influencer (with more than 350,000 Instagram followers) and she recently started a Flemish podcast called Secret Society with a few Belgian girlfriends. Her parents are physiotherapists and she wanted to be a doctor when she was at school. “I never thought my life would look like this. Getting a degree was my main goal then.” When she was 17 and De Bruyne was 21, they started dating. Apart from it being her husband’s career, she has no interest in football and certainly had no ambition to be a footballer’s wife. Can she see what makes him a special player? “I don’t know a lot about football, but I think he sees things before the others maybe. He’s always one step ahead?”
She’s encouraging Suri to finish her fruit. “Everyone thinks she’s called Surrey,” she says. “‘Ello, Surrey!’” She does a good impression of a cockney. Rome is building a racetrack on his mini computer. He shows me how to do it, but I can’t keep up. Mason asks for a go of my tape recorder. “I’m going to interview you. What’s it like working for media? What’s your favourite colour?”
De Bruyne emerges from his haircut looking pleased with himself. “I’m like 24 now! I could be a model!” We head back into his office and he and LaCroix sit together on the sofa. I ask her how life has changed since they got together. For starters, she says, they weren’t living anywhere like here. Back then he was just making a name for himself and they could pretty much do what they wanted socially. “Football-wise, it’s got better and better. But then we could do more normal stuff. On a city trip, say, maybe two or three people would come up to us. Now we’re more isolated. So you do more things at home with friends. Kevin has grown more open because we’re in such an intimate circle, always with the same group. He’s more comfortable with who he is.”
“I’m more open-minded to life,” De Bruyne says. “When I was younger, it was just football. Now I have a family, life is different.” In fact, he says, it’s remarkably similar to many other working people – he drops the kids off on his way to work, trains, comes home, family meal with the kids, helps with the homework, watches telly.
He admits there is one way their life is noticeably different from the rest of ours – they spend more money on stuff. This is partly because they can and partly because they pay extra to buy their privacy. “We have to live our life in a more secluded way. Often, if we go on a tour it will be a private tour, and most of the time this stuff is more expensive and more individual.”
LaCroix says this is not a choice. When she and the kids go out without De Bruyne, they can do whatever they want. But with him it’s a different story. “Yesterday we thought we’d try going to the fair and Kevin made at least 100 pictures. Maybe 150. And the kids had to wait all the time, and it wasn’t enjoyable for them. At one point security came up and we thought they’d help, then they said, ‘Can we have a picture?’” She laughs.
She’s not asking for sympathy, she says. In so many ways it’s a wonderful, privileged life. But it isn’t without problems. “When I’ve been driving to the club lately,” De Bruyne says, “there have been people driving next to me and filming. People have followed me.”
After games, LaCroix adds, “People just jump in front of the car so you can’t drive. Then the one next to them goes for a picture so you can’t go anywhere.”
Top footballers get paid ludicrous salaries and are idolised by their supporters. De Bruyne is City’s best-paid player, earning an estimated £385,000 a week – £20m a year. In 2020, he cut ties with his long-term agent, Patrick De Koster, after he was arrested on suspicion of fraud. The investigation was reportedly triggered by complaints from De Bruyne himself. Last year, he negotiated his own contract extension using data analysts to prove his worth to the club.
All the money and worship must change you, I say. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the money, it’s the attention. If you go from no attention to wherever you go people give you attention, then that changes you. You either take everything in or block everything out. Some people like all the attention, but after a while it becomes so much you get eaten up by it. Then if you push it out you seem arrogant. It’s a thin line you have to walk.”
In terms of attention, he says, it’s harder for the top English players: “Because I’m a foreigner living here, I’m still OK. When you’re an English player, the attention flows from everywhere. It would be too much for me.”
Does he think he gets paid too much? “No. I compare it to a singer at a concert and 60,000 people come. I look at it logically. There are millions of people watching the football on TV, there’s 60,000 watching the games, the income of a club is £500-£600m. Yeah, it’s a lot of money, but is it too much? If the club can afford it, it’s not too much. It’s not a popular answer, but that’s how I see it.”
How hard is it for them to relate to people struggling with the cost of living crisis? “We are really close to our family and friends, and most of them have normal jobs, so we know the struggles,” LaCroix says.
She looks at De Bruyne and asks him to translate an expression. “We stay with our feet on the ground,” he says. “It’s easier for us to understand, but it will be harder for the kids because they’re used to a certain lifestyle. They go to a private school and there are people from similar backgrounds. They understand when we go to see our families it’s different types of houses and another lifestyle.” It worries him: “We’ll try, but it cannot be the same as when we grew up. It’s not possible.”
When he was a child, he says, his parents didn’t have much, but it was plenty: “We had what we needed; a nice garden.” Does he have siblings? “One sister. She did trampoline and was pretty good at it. But she didn’t have the character to go on like I did.”
So many promising footballers fall by the wayside. Fewer than 0.5% of the kids in English academies at the age of nine make it as professionals at any level. So what is character? “It’s will. It’s saying no to fun stuff. At 17, 18, a new social life is beginning, people are going out, having fun with friends, and you have to say no.” That must be hard? “It is, and that’s why many people fall down at that stage. You have to become an adult quickly in football. When you start playing with the first team, you’re living with 30-, 35-year-olds; people with kids. It’s not easy and you need to learn that quickly, because if you don’t, you fall out. Elite sport is brutal.”
Did he find it tough as a teen? “Yes. I also missed part of my life because I went away from 14. We’d play on a Saturday, then I would go home to see my parents and on Sunday evening I’d travel back. So I missed the whole social part of my life.” Was he jealous of his friends? “Not at that time. Maybe afterwards. Later, when you experience things, you think perhaps it would have been fun to be doing this when everybody else was.”
It was his decision to leave home at 14: he was desperate to play football, and his parents were supportive.
I ask if the story about being dumped by his foster family is true. “Yes,” he says. “There were three of us and the other two were more sociable. At summer break I said bye to the family and went home. Then my parents told me, you’re not going back, they don’t want you any more.” He says the foster family never said anything directly, but told his parents they didn’t want him because he was too quiet, too difficult, a teenager who didn’t fit in. To add insult to injury, Genk told him he had to go to boarding school instead. In Belgium, boarding schools are more for problematic than privileged students. “I really didn’t want to do it.”
Did that rejection make him question his character? “No. I thought I’m going to push more and show them. I said to my parents, I will do good, you’ll see. I’ll be in the first team quickly, then everything will change.”
There is a YouTube film about De Bruyne that depicts his life as a triumph over tragedy. “Right from the beginning he was abandoned by his foster family,” it says. “And still life didn’t stop hitting him with tragedy after tragedy.” It goes on to document how the 20-year-old signed for Chelsea in a £7m deal and played only three Premier League games before being sold as a flop.
Has he seen the film? “No.” In the film, it mentions a match in which he came on as a half-time substitute and scored five goals. Every goal, it says, was a way of answering the foster family: “One goal, they don’t want you any more. Two goals, too quiet. Three goals, too difficult. Four goals, they don’t want you any more. Five goals, because of who you are.” When I describe this, he turns a pinker shade of pink. “That’s not true. I don’t know who said that, but it’s not true. I find that a little bit embarrassing, to be fair.” Now he’s laughing. “My life wasn’t that bad, to be honest!”
De Bruyne says too much was made of his time at Chelsea when he left, and too much was made when he returned to the Premier League a couple of years later with Manchester City. “When I came here people said, ‘Chelsea reject.’ No, I was just a young boy who didn’t play and was there for six months. I was really young.”
Leaving Chelsea was the making of him. He signed for Bundesliga club Wolfsburg in 2014 for £18m, ended the 2014-15 season with 16 goals and 27 assists in all competitions and was named Germany’s footballer of the year. In August 2015, Manchester City signed him for £55m. Those who remembered his unhappy time at Chelsea couldn’t believe how much City paid for him. Former Liverpool player Phil Thompson said: “The world is going mad. The amount of money they’re paying for this boy is just absolutely bonkers.” But it turned out to be a bargain. In four of his seven seasons, he has been voted player of the season, and City have won the Premier League four of the past five seasons. In 2017-18 they became the first (and still only) club to get 100 points in a season and the following season won an unprecedented clean sweep of domestic trophies.
Eight months after De Bruyne arrived at City, Pep Guardiola became manager. It was the catalyst for the club’s greatest run in its history. For most of my life as a City fan, I was used to nothing but failure; between 1976 and 2011 the club didn’t win a trophy. Thanks to huge investment from its UAE owners, the signing of great players and arguably the best manager in the world, City have dominated the Premier League for the past decade.
As supporters, I say, we love everything our owners have done for the club, but some/many of us do worry about the UAE’s human rights record. Does it bother him? “Honestly, I don’t know too much about that. All I can say is when we speak to people from the Emirates, they’re all really good and polite. I can only speak highly of them, especially Khaldoon [chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak]. You speak to him and he’s a normal person.”
I ask LaCroix if De Bruyne finds it easy to turn off from football. “Yes. He comes home and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I need a break’, so he’ll watch NBA or Formula One. If he’s injured and City plays, me and the kids just leave him alone in front of the television, because when something goes wrong he shouts. I’m like, nothing is going to change, then he shouts at us, and I’m like, OK, let him just watch the game, and after he’s like, sorry!”
De Bruyne has never been sent off for City. But there is a famous clip of him losing it with his teammates at the end of a Champions League match against Napoli in 2017 when he wants to confront the referee. De Bruyne, at his pinkest, shouts “Let me talk” five times. Every time his voice gets louder and morehigh-pitched. In the end, he sees sense and walks away.
I ask LaCroix to do an impression of him getting angry. “One time when he was injured he threw a bottle of water on the floor with full strength. He couldn’t walk but still managed to get up to the television to shout at it.”
“I just want my team to win,” De Bruyne says meekly.
Suddenly the door bursts open and Spider-Man flies into the room. He removes his head gear, and it’s Mason. “Are you going to answer questions?” LaCroix asks. “No,” Mason says. Is it true you’re more interested in playing piano than football, I ask. “Yes,” he says.
Despite City’s domestic success, they have yet to win the Champions League, the most prestigious club tournament in Europe. How important does De Bruyne think it is? “I don’t think it’s that important. It would be nice, but I think it’s more from the outside. It’s a stick people can beat City with. ‘Oh, you’ve done this but you haven’t done this.’ OK, but we’ve still done really good.”
Who are his best friends at City? “I would say probably Kyle Walker and Nathan Aké.” That’s surprising, I say. Walker seems quite different from you. (Walker was splashed across the front pages of the tabloids after hosting a party with sex workers during lockdown.) “Not really,” De Bruyne says. Is that the media? “I don’t know about media. Obviously there have been issues in the past for him. But from day one I have been close to Kyle and he has three kids and they play with my kids.”
I ask about Belgium’s chances in Qatar, wondering if he’ll be more diplomatic this time. But he’s not. “I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”
De Bruyne, at 31, is at his peak. It’s hard to imagine him playing with such pace for much longer. Does he feel it’s getting tougher?
“I am fully able to do what I need to do, but I feel the difference compared with eight years ago. I need more treatment, more rest.”
“When he was younger, the day after a game he’d be like, ‘We can go and play tennis,’” LaCroix says. “Now the day after he’s like, ‘I need to rest. My body hurts.’”
LaCroix says football has brought her the lifestyle she dreamed of. The only difference is she had always imagined she would make her own money. What’s the worst thing about being a footballer’s wife? Often she feels like a single parent, she says. “For example, Kevin has never been to one school nativity. I’m always the parent on their own. It’s rare he can go to something for them. Two of the kids are at school, so we only have weekends to do things with them, but Kevin is playing then. It makes it harder to do stuff together as a family. Kevin always says now we need to be disciplined for football and later we can enjoy everything together.”
Does she think when he retires that will be her time to pursue her dreams? “That’s what everyone keeps saying. But I don’t think so now. I’m devoted to being with the kids, and I’ve just started the podcast.”
“She’s the glue,” he says out of nowhere. Then he looks embarrassed. “I don’t want to say that because tonight she’ll say, ‘My God, look what you’ve said.’”
LaCroix: “No, I don’t do that. I do not.”
“Yes, you would,” he says. “If I said you were the glue to the family, you’d say, ‘Remember you said that.’”
Do you mean Michèle would use it against you?
De Bruyne: “Of course!”
LaCroix: “He’s making it up!”
They seem to have a lovely relationship.
I ask if he is planning for life after playing? She looks at him, curious to hear the answer: “He gets annoyed when I ask about it. ‘I’m still playing!’”
De Bruyne: “Not really.”
LaCroix: “You do a bit.”
De Bruyne: “Well, I do things to advance the future. I’ve got my Uefa A and B coaching qualification already.”
Does he think he’ll stay in football?
De Bruyne: “Probably, yes.”
LaCroix: “100%. Kevin loves football way too much to not be in it. He should because it’s in his heart as well.”
But he could simply retire, live a life of luxury, make up for lost time on the self-indulgence and dossing front.
“It would never happen,” LaCroix says. “Give him one month, then he would be annoyed. When Covid started he was running around the sofa. I couldn’t cope with him at home.”
They go to have their photos taken. I stay in the office staring at his platoon of man of the match awards. I pop in to see how the shoot is going. De Bruyne is trying to juggle all three children in his arms and I’m worried he may get injured. I’m not sure Pep would be happy.
On the way out, I tell him that at away matches my daughter Maya and I get into the ground early when it’s almost empty and shout for waves from the players when they come out to warm up. Nearly all have given us waves, but never De Bruyne. You’re so intensely focused? “I think so, yes. I’m very different on the pitch to when I’m here. Once I’m playing football it’s a different zone. Then when I’ve finished, the game is done.”
For many years, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the undisputed two best players in the world. But things are changing. In August, De Bruyne was runner-up in the Uefa Men’s Player of the Year award, won by another oldie, Karim Benzema. How important is it to be regarded as one of the best in the world? The quiet, diffident De Bruyne looks at me with magnificent imperiousness. “It’s not important to be regarded as one of the best,” he says. “I want to be the best.”
The next few weeks with Belgium at the World Cup will provide the perfect stage for him prove that he is.
John Herdman was leaving the stage when it was announced the player of the match would be next up to face the media. The recipient of Fifa’s award left the Canada head coach stunned. “Kevin De Bruyne is player of the match? Wow,” he said. If there was an insult, it was only to Canada.
The Belgium playmaker was embarrassed to be singled out for praise after Canada brought everything to their first World Cup appearance for 36 years except a clinical touch. His honesty, and Michy Batshuayi’s ruthless finish, were the only highlights of a worrying night for Roberto Martínez’s team. “I don’t think I had a great game. I don’t know why I have the award, maybe it’s the name,” admitted De Bruyne. “We didn’t play a good game, me included, but the good thing was we found a way to win.”
Martínez claimed Belgium deserved victory – he was in a company of one – despite conceding a journalist had a point when they asked whether this was his team’s worst performance in a tournament fixture. “It depends what you mean by worst game,” replied Belgium’s head coach. “Technically, yes. But worst performance? No. We won, and you don’t win by accident.” Belgium won thanks to Canada’s profligacy, chiefly, and Thibaut Courtois’ commanding goalkeeping.
Canada had 21 attempts on goal to Belgium’s nine, but only three on target. One of those was an Alphonso Davies penalty and that didn’t find its way past Courtois either. Canada have now gone a record four games without scoring at the World Cup. Their achilles heel stood between a memorable night and an undeserved defeat. “We showed that we belong here,” said the English-born Herdman. “I’m sure our fans walked away proud that we are a football nation.”
Belgium began the World Cup in a trance. They looked dazed and pedestrian in comparison to an opponent that was a blur of energy and incisive movement in its all-white kit.
Canada had qualified for a first World Cup since 1986, and only the second in its history, with a fearless approach built on pace and a high press. They made no concessions in style against a team ranked second in the world. Their boldness should have brought tangible reward long before Batshuayi opened the scoring completely against the run of play.
But for greater conviction from the penalty spot, and more composure with the final ball or shot, Canada would have established a comfortable lead. They were awarded an early penalty when Tajon Buchanan’s shot struck the outstretched arm of Yannick Carrasco and VAR advised referee Janny Sikazwe to consult the monitor having initially ignored Canada’s appeals.
Sikazwe, the Zambian official who hit the headlines earlier this year when blowing for full time early in an Africa Cup of Nations match between Tunisia and Mali, corrected his decision. The Bayern Munich player’s attempt was weak and comfortably in range for Courtois, who parried low to his right. Davies and Jonathan David made a hash of the rebound too. Herdman said: “It was a big moment. He was carrying the weight of a nation after 36 years, longer as it would have been our first goal, and that takes a special character.”
Davies, who has pledged to donate all his World Cup earnings to charity, was visibly deflated. Canada were not. They drove forward in numbers and exploited gaps in a creaking Belgium defence where Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen showed their combined age of 68.
A claim for a second Canadian penalty was missed by the erratic match officials when Eden Hazard played a careless backpass to Buchanan, who was caught by Vertonghen. Buchanan was flagged offside. VAR did look at another penalty appeal when Richie Laryea beat Axel Witsel for pace and was caught on the calf by the chasing midfielder. This time it sided with Sikazwe’s initial decision to award a goal kick.
Canada captain Atiba Hutchinson, the second oldest outfield player in World Cup history at 39, behind Roger Milla aged 42, sliced wide after an excellent run by Davies. Alistair Johnston forced Courtois into a fine save and David selfishly opted to shoot when Laryea was totally unmarked inside the area. His effort was deflected into the arms of the Real Madrid goalkeeper.
Belgium hardly threatened until a minute before the break when Canada were undone by a searching ball out of defence from Alderweireld. The pass sent Batshuayi sprinting through a gap between the otherwise impressive Kamal Miller and Laryea and he swept a first time finish beyond Milan Borjan.
With Romelu Lukaku expected to miss two games as he recovers from a hamstring injury, Belgium need the former Chelsea forward on clinical form. They also need a vastly improved collective display, although there was an upturn following Amadou Onana’s introduction for the second half. De Bruyne and Alderweireld were seen arguing at one point. “We were playing too long when we needed to play short-short-short,” said De Bruyne. “We were not brave enough. But there are no hard feelings with Toby.”
Buchanan missed a glorious chance to equalise from Laryrea’s cross in first-half stoppage time. Canada pushed for parity throughout the second half but with David heading wide after Stephen Eustaquio had nutmegged De Bruyne and floated over an inviting delivery, and Courtois producing a flying save to deny substitute Cyle Larin, they were punished severely for lacking the ruthlessness of Batshuayi. But Canada have something to build on.
The opportunities came one after another. From distance and from close range. From corners, free kicks and open play. The fearless upstarts from Canada who have spent the past couple of years upending North American’s football long-standing order had arrived on the global stage and were taking it to the world’s No 2 team.
All of them shone on Monday night, from the stars to the supporting cast. Stephen Eustaquio, Jonathan David, Tajon Buchanan, Alphonso Davies, Richie Laryea, Junior Hoilett, Alistair Johnston and the ageless captain Atiba Hutchinson, three months shy of his 40th birthday, made demands of Belgium’s creaking backline and their world-class goalkeeper. Any one of them might have written themselves into history as Canada’s first goalscorer at a men’s World Cup.
The uptempo attacking verve that had defined the Canadians’ buzzsaw tear through Concacaf qualifying – and their first men’s World Cup appearance in nearly four decades – produced no fewer than 10 shots in the first half hour. Each successive attempt sent Canada’s pack of travelling fans, already in full throat from the team’s first emergence to Drake’s Started from the Bottom and a rousing singalong to Canada’s national anthem, into a deafening wall of sound.
Then, one minute from half-time, a dream start spiralled into a nightmare. From almost nothing Michy Batshuayi ran onto Toby Alderweireld’s inch-perfect ball and clinically buried it into the far corner of the net, leaving a constellation of white shirts frozen in stunned silence. It was the Belgians’ first solid chance of the game and, ultimately, all they needed to escape with three charmed points.
“We approached the game with the right mentality,” said Hutchinson, the lone Canadian player who was alive the last time the country played in a men’s World Cup. “There’s six more points to play for. Everybody in our change room knows what we’re capable of doing. It’s just a game that didn’t go our way today.”
Canada’s return to the sport’s biggest event after a 36-year absence was never going to be easy. Drawn into a group with a pair of European giants fresh off runs to the last four in 2018 – a Belgian side in the winter of a golden generation and Croatia, runners-up four years ago – Les Rouges always faced an uphill climb to reach the knockout stage.
But this one, a 1-0 defeat in a match they largely dominated, will sting. And not just because Davies, the 22-year-old Bayern Munich full-back and this swaggering group’s undisputed star, was denied from the spot in the 10th minute after the unflappable Thibaut Courtois dived correctly to his right.
Teams simply don’t play this well and lose very often. Canada became the first side to attempt at least 20 shots and one penalty in a game while failing to score since 1978. The advanced stats only added further context to the injustice: the Canadians’ 2.6 expected goals were the fourth-most in a World Cup loss since 1966.
“We won due to our experience and the quality of our goalkeeper and a few other things,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez said. “Canada was better than us, but in the end the win is more important than playing well. We did what we had to do. But we have to be realistic: against bigger teams, we would have lost this match.”
Canada are no closer to the country’s first ever World Cup goal than when the night started, yet one can’t help but marvel at how far they’ve come. Eight years ago, Les Rouges were 122nd in the Fifa rankings – below the likes of Lesotho, Palestine and St Kitts – having been frozen out of the final round of Concacaf qualifying once again by an 8-1 bludgeoning at the hands of Honduras. They hadn’t even come close to qualifying for the World Cup since their first and only appearance back in 1986, when they crashed out of the group stage with losses to France, Hungary and the USSR.
But their prospects have shifted dramatically under John Herdman, their 47-year-old manager from Consett in County Durham, who was already a national hero after guiding Canada’s women’s team to back-to-back bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Buoyed by a glut of young stars who have developed into major contributors at European clubs, among them Champions League winner Davies (Bayern Munich), David (Lille), Buchanan (Club Brugge) and Cyle Larin (Besiktas), they were 17 games unbeaten across three grueling rounds of Concacaf qualifying until the final window of games and finished clear of both Mexico and the United States at the top of the group.
“I’m proud of the performance,” an emotional Herdman said after the game. “But you need to take three points in your first game. We had an opportunity tonight to be top of the group, that was the mission, and we missed it. But these lads showed that they can live on this stage and I think they made the fans proud and made them feel that they belong here.”
Herdman’s wholesale culture change bodes well for 2026, when Canada co-host the World Cup along with the US and Mexico. But with a suddenly vital match with Croatia in four days’ time, looking ahead is the last thing on his mind.
“We’re gonna go and eff Croatia, that’s as simple as it gets,” he said. “That’s our next mission now.”
Golden generation. The eyes must roll every time that loaded description is mentioned in Belgium circles but there it is, from Eden Hazard no less, in a Fifa promotional video for the World Cup in which the Real Madrid man insists this incarnation has delivered on account of a third-place finish in Russia four years ago. Roberto Martínez concurs, although that is no great surprise from a master of positive spin who once described an Everton player’s broken leg as “a great opportunity” and every set of results going against Wigan in their fight for Premier League survival as good for his players’ mindset. They were relegated the next day courtesy of a 4-1 defeat at Arsenal.
Revisit Belgium’s performance in 2018, however, and it does seem churlish to dismiss Hazard’s and Martínez’s point entirely. Beating England for a second time in the tournament to win the third-place playoff meant something, as the jubilant reaction in the dugout and on the pitch demonstrated. It meant Belgium’s best placing at a World Cup, eclipsing the achievement of the Enzo Scifo, Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets and Jean-Marie Pfaff generation who finished fourth in Mexico in 1986. And it meant a great deal to the thousands of fans who packed the Grand-Place in Brussels, turning the air black, yellow and red with their flares as they gave the squad a triumphant homecoming. There was no sign of disappointment that day with a golden generation being unmasked as bronze.
Four years on Belgium bring expectation into a World Cup again, albeit accompanied by reservations rather than the conviction this gifted group can go one step further. Several of the original cast members have gone – including Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembélé, plus Nacer Chadli, who underlined the value of a selfless squad player when scoring the 94th-minute winner that sealed a thrilling 3-2 comeback win over Japan in the last 16.
Several ageing originals remain – mainly concentrated in defence where Martínez remains reliant on the 33-year-old Toby Alderweireld and 35-year-old Jan Vertonghen. Last summer’s European Championship brought defeat in the quarter-finals by the eventual winners Italy, when Belgium ran out of options and ideas. This year has brought two defeats by the Netherlands in the Nations League, the first a comprehensive 4-1 reverse on home soil after Romelu Lukaku had departed injured with the game goalless. “This is what we needed to prepare for the World Cup,” said Martínez, true to form, of Belgium’s first loss to the Netherlands for 25 years.
Doubts continue to surround the fitness of Lukaku, who has made only two brief substitute appearances for Internazionale since injuring a hamstring in the summer and has been receiving daily treatment in the buildup to day’s opener against Canada. Belgium’s prospects are closely aligned to the availability of their leading goalscorer but there is validity to their belief as well as the concerns. Martínez’s squad remains packed with title-winning experience, possesses some world-class talent and an emerging crop who hope to replenish the golden stock. They include Amadou Onana, whom Everton signed in a deal worth up to €40m from Lille this summer and who exudes confidence that his first World Cup can result in the ultimate triumph in Qatar.
“Why not? That is the ambition we have,” says the 21-year-old. “We have a very good mix. We have very experienced players; I’m talking about Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu and others. I think we have a great mix. Talking about pressure – I don’t feel no pressure. We have a great team. Of course we have to take it in a very serious way and not just think: ‘We are Belgium and we’re going to make it anyway,’ but I am quite confident.”
De Bruyne is a major reason for Onana’s optimism. The younger midfielder venerates his senior teammate, and to whoever is in his company. “He is one of the best players in the world. That is my opinion,” Onana says. “For me, and I have been saying this is the locker room at Everton, he does things that no one else can do. I would give him the Ballon d’Or. If it depended on me I would give it to him. He is a crazy player and I enjoy having the chance to share the pitch with him.”
The Manchester City playmaker is 31 and has indicated this could be his last chance to win a World Cup. That is certainly true of Vertonghen and Alderweireld, while Courtois and Lukaku, who will be 34 and 33 respectively by the time the 2026 tournament kicks off, may also view Qatar as a final farewell in their prime. Onana believes the golden age could last until the United States, Canada and Mexico in four years’ time, however. “You will have to ask them if it is their last World Cup,” he says. “But I would be pleased to keep playing with them because they are great, great players. And they are great professionals.”
Onana admits it will be the realisation of “a dream to play in a World Cup” and the completion of a plan that involved moving to the Premier League, establishing himself in the Everton team and winning selection for Martínez’s squad. There is a possibility he could come up against his Everton colleague Jordan Pickford, and England’s No 1, in the final. “I’ll score against him” he laughs. “I’m joking, but why not?”
This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 November.
The plan isn’t much of a plan any more, more a case of “it is what it is”. Roberto Martínez is simply sticking to the same tactical shape he introduced six years ago: the 3-4-3. The personnel has changed, though. Vincent Kompany has gone. Thomas Vermaelen too, with the former Arsenal defender now one of the assistant managers. Instead, when Belgium played Wales and the Netherlands in the Nations League in September, the back three featured three players from the Belgian Jupiler Pro League.
Toby Alderweireld (Antwerp) and Jan Vertonghen (Anderlecht) have recently come back home after playing in Qatar and Benfica respectively, while the promising Anderlecht teenager Zeno Debast made his debut in September. The problem is that Alderweireld and Vertonghen are not at the same level as they were at Tottenham a few years back.
Belgium lost twice against the Netherlands in four months and the old, shaky defence is the main worry. The world-class goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois can’t stop all the attacks on his own. The other options at the back aren’t too encouraging either. Jason Denayer has not helped himself by rejecting several offers after leaving Lyon in the summer. He trained on his own for several months before signing for Shabab Al Ahli in Dubai in October.
Up front, Romelu Lukaku had a bad season at Chelsea then injured himself upon returning to Internazionale. He only got back to full fitness in October but has reportedly aggravated it again. Eden Hazard is finally injury-free at Real Madrid after three years of misery, but is not getting many minutes.
“Eden is still of great value for Belgium,” Martínez said of his captain. “The question is whether he can play 90 minutes and whether he can handle seven matches in a short period of time. No one is looking away from that reality. Eden hasn’t played at a constant level for a long time and that has consequences. But he showed his worth during the last international break.”
Hazard still gets the nod with Leandro Trossard used as a super sub. Otherwise Belgium rely heavily on Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne, their last remaining world-class players.
It is not yet known who will succeed Roberto Martínez after the World Cup nor, in fact, who is appointing the manager. Martínez currently combines the job of technical director and national team coach at the Belgian FA but his contract is running out at the end of the year – will he pick his own successor? After six years the patience of the Belgian public is slowly running out, although what happens in Qatar will define his legacy. Martínez led Belgium to their best result in a World Cup, the third place in Russia in 2018, but he has not won a trophy and Euro 2020 was a disappointment as Belgium were knocked out by Italy in the quarter-finals. It may well be that the golden generation will for ever be known as the bronze generation. Martínez is getting more and more criticism for sticking to his untouchables; the fans expect to see more experimentation and new faces. Even his “Mr Brightside” demeanour in interviews and press conferences is starting to frustrate some supporters. He has lost a lot of credit.
During a recent game against the Netherlands Kevin De Bruyne got frustrated. At Manchester City he is playing with the best in the world. With Belgium that’s a thing of the past. With Hazard and Lukaku often missing, De Bruyne has established himself even more as the leader on the pitch: the man who dictates everything. Belgium rely on his brilliance. At Euro 2020 De Bruyne suffered an ankle injury in the last-16 win against Portugal but still played – with injections – in the quarter-final. It shows his commitment to the national team. In the last 10 competitive games he has been involved in eight out of 18 goals while playing as a roaming No 10 but some of his best football has come as a box-to-box midfielder.
In what would be Martínez’s preferred lineup there is not really an unsung hero but, when Lukaku is missing, Belgium can turn to Michy Batshuayi. Inconsistent at club level for many years while he was loaned out time and again by Chelsea, he is reliable for Belgium. Lukaku has played only one international game over the past year while Batshuayi delivered in four of the past eight games and his overall record stands at 26 goals in 47 international appearances. Not a bad tally. His goalscoring is better than his overall involvement in games but that is sometimes enough against lesser opponents. A super sub.
Before the World Cup qualifier against Belarus in March 2021 a second-string Belgian team walked out in shirts adorned with the slogan: “Football supports change”, echoing the message of the Netherlands team around the same time. The Belgian FA also joined forces with their German, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish counterparts, saying: “We actively stand up against racism and are not ignoring the problems in Qatar. We demand stronger action to improve working conditions and human rights.” In September the Belgian FA CEO, Peter Bossaert, said: “Belgium regret that Qatar won the World Cup bid” – and they will join England and other countries in the One Love campaign, with the captain wearing a rainbow-coloured armband.
For king, for freedom and for law! The Belgium national anthem is called La Brabançonne and, according to legend, the song was written in 1830 during the Belgian revolution. It has been attributed to a young revolutionary called Jenneval, a French actor working in Belgium, who apparently read the lyrics during a meeting at the Aigle d’Or cafe in Brussels. The music is written by François van Campenhout and is based on a French song called L’Air des Lanciers Polonais. The lyrics were changed in 1860 to hail the kingdom and the independence from the Netherlands in 1830. They exist in the three official languages (French, Dutch, German) but the anthem is not taught in school and many Belgians do not know the words. In fact, the politician Yves Leterme once accidentally began to sing La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, when asked about the lyrics of the Belgian one.
All-time cult hero
When Ronaldo is asked to name his best teammates, he occasionally gives Luc Nilis as an answer. “We played together at PSV,” the Brazilian once said. “He always gave me great assists. Every time, every match. More than [Zinedine] Zidane. Whenever he came up against the goalkeeper he was never selfish and made sure I scored. He was incredibly generous.” Nilis scored brilliant goals while playing in the Netherlands but his talent never got fully recognised in Belgium, partly as he scored only 10 goals in 56 games for the national team. At club level he scored over 300. His career ended when he suffered a double fracture of his right shin in his third league game for Aston Villa and, as the injury got infected, there were even fears he may lose a leg. Nilis, who is loved by hardcore football fans in Belgium, went through some dark times after the injury but is now managing in the lower leagues.
Kristof Terreur writes for HLN. Follow him here on Twitter.