Everyone expects a better result than in Brazil, where Belgium reached the quarter-finals. One of the favourites to get the title
Main player profile: Jason Denayer
He has some Kompany in him. His nickname (the new Kompany), his club (Manchester City), his position (central defender), his skills (strong, fast, technically good), his origin (a Brussels ‘ketje’ from a mixed family) and now he’s replacing him in the national team. Let’s introduce you to Jason Denayer, a warrior trained in bare feet.
He’d probably rather want to make a name for himself, but Denayer can’t deny the comparisons with his countryman. When he signed on loan for Celtic in 2014, the Scottish club proudly presented him as the ‘new Kompany’. It said everything about his reputation and his potential. Only time will tell if Denayer follows Kompany’s footsteps to become one of the best defenders in the Premier League. The 20-year-old defender is currently playing on loan for Galatasaray, but in the summer he returns to Manchester City and he hopes to convince Pep Guardiola of his qualities.
Denayer is not quite expressive as his idol just yet though – he’s a bit shy, calm and kind – but he is strong-willed and very competitive. When he was five years old, his dad took him to Ganshoren, one of the local teams in Brussels, but the coach rejected him because he was too young – in Belgium you cannot join a club to play organised football until you’re six. "I was so devastated that I still remember that day", Denayer told Het Laatste Nieuws. "Rain was pouring down and I saw Junior Malanda – born in 1994 – running on the pitch. While I wasn’t allowed to. It motivated me. I was determined to join the club a year later."
Denayer likes rapid progress. Things have to move on. On the age of 11 he had a first trial at Anderlecht, Belgium’s biggest club. His teammates didn’t play him the ball, so he told his dad he didn’t want to join ‘Paars-wit’ (Purple and whites) at all. "I want to go back to Ganshoren." When Anderlecht knocked on his door 12 months later, he agreed to join them, although he didn’t last long for a long time.
The scouts of the newly founded Académie Jean-Marc Guillou saw remarkable vision in the 13-year-old striker. "One of my best friends was on a trial in the academy," remembers Denayer. "He told me that they played football for four hours every day. It fascinated me." On the last of the four trial days at the academy, he was physically knackered from all the running around. Someone suggested to him to try out as a defender. It worked out well.
After the session Vincent Defour, one of the main coaches, walked towards him and asked: "are you dreaming of a professional career?" Denayer knew he would be struggling to match the small, technically gifted strikers that he’d seen during the trial days and he took the decision himself to become a defender. From that moment he never looked back. He signed a contract for the JMG Academy. A choice for an unorthodox path to a professional career.
Founder Guillou was one of Arsene Wenger’s star-spotters and is credited with developing the likes of the Toure brothers, Kolo and Yaya, Gervinho, Emmanuel Eboué, Salomon Kalou and many more in his African academies. He wanted to replicate his successful concept in Tongerlo, close to Antwerp. It was a move that was met with a lot of resistance from the professional clubs. Not only were they upset that the academy signed some of their young talents, but prospects had to sign a contract too and were withdrawn from normal competition football, playing only small-sided games among each other as they wanted to focus on technique and education in a private school.
They learned all the football skills and trained in bare feet to improve their touch. "The regime was tough and during the first few weeks I had my doubts," recalls Denayer. "Your day started at 7am and ended at 10:30pm. In between you had one and a half hour – just before bedtime – to call your friends or family. It was playing football, studying, eat, sleep. As a 14-year-old, I could easily cope with the regime, but I still remember that there were also nine and ten year-old guys. Every Monday, they were constantly crying during the trip from Brussels to Tongerlo in our mini-van."
The academy saved him from the streets, drugs, criminality and all other problems kids in his situation would face. His family – his dad is Belgian, his mom Congolese – had moved to the Anneessens quarter, one of the deprived areas in Brussels. He used to be on the street a lot. "You had to be careful. Even when you were playing football," says Denayer. "One silly contact could cause an explosive atmosphere. I’ve known boys who were more talented than me, but have never made it. They made other choices. That’s the danger of growing up in a tough neighbourhood."
When he was 18, Denayer had developed into a strong defender. He was always blessed physically, big and strong, fast and smart, but he could also dribble and played without fear. Lierse, the club that had a partnership with the academy, wanted to tie him up as a semi-professional player, but the player had higher hopes. He rejected the offer and made a tour around England.
He had a trial at Liverpool, but club and player never reached an agreement. His next stop was City. "It took months for the club to take a decision – the longest period of my life. But when I signed a deal, I was super happy. I got my chance in the EDS team and trained with the first team," says Denayer.
In the summer of 2014 he joined the first squad on their pre-season tour in the United States, but he only played a few minutes. "My agent told me that the Celtic manager (Ronny Deila) had watched some of the EDS games and that he was interested in signing me. I said to myself: ‘Glasgow, the city where the sun only shines one week out of a year?’ But the manager called me and convinced me to join. I was euphoric and nervous at the same time. Before we reached the dressing room during the stadium tour, my dad told me: "Jason, once you walk through that door, you are a professional player. And you will have to behave like one too."
In his first game in Celtic Park, against Dundee, he immediately scored his first goal. After just four minutes. Denayer admits "the jigsaw fell into place." He was crowned Scottish champion, won the League Cup and was elected as PFA Young Player of the Year. His first season at the highest level was one long dream.
A young boy once made a similar start in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League. His name: Vincent Kompany.
Tactics and key questions
The foundations of his team show some cracks, but national manager Marc Wilmots isn’t planning to reshape his defence after losing his charismatic leader at the back, Vincent Kompany, due to a torn thigh muscle. When he announced his squad, Wilmots said he would use Jason Denayer, an inexperienced, but talented central defender, as his skipper’s replacement. Wilmots prefers a right footed and a left footed pair in the heart of his defence. Denayer will probably play alongside Thomas Vermaelen, who’s rarely played this season with Barcelona, or Nicolas Lombaerts, defender of Zenit. The defender, currently loaned out by Manchester City to Galatasaray, is considered as Kompany’s long-term successor. He has a ‘ball-playing’ defender, but currently lacks leadership skills – he’s a shy guy.
Unless injuries force him to change, Wilmots won’t use Spurs defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen as his centre-back pairing, one of the best partnerships in the Premier League this season. His problem: Belgium hasn’t produced a lot of good full backs in the last five years. Alderweireld and Vertonghen are the best options and both players have accepted that they won’t play in the centre anymore – unless there are loads of injuries. Both have grown in their full-back role too. Alderweireld was excellent in Brazil and provided three assists in the Euro qualifiers. Wilmots called-up Thomas Meunier, full back of Club Brugge, and Jordan Lukaku, brother of Romelu and currently playing for Oostende, as back-ups. Both lack experience at the highest level and aren’t defensively that strong. Former Portsmouth player Anthony van den Borre, who was in the World Cup squad, was sent to Anderlecht’s B-squad early in the season after a conflict with the staff. He is no longer an option.
Since Wilmots took over from Georges Leekens in 2012, he’s rarely changed his 4-2-3-1 system. Also the players are more or less the same as those who reached the quarter-finals in Brazil, their first experience with the national team on a big tournament. AS Roma’s Radja Nainggolan, who surprisingly wasn’t selected, is the only newcomer in midfield. He gave the team something extra with his energy, his powerful tackling also regularly scores a goal from long range. He suffered a calf strain at the end of May and will be fit just in time for the Euros. As Belgium were often struggling due to their slow-passing game, Wilmots had made a few tweaks. He moved Kevin De Bruyne from the right wing to the number 10 role in October. The City midfielder was already pulling the strings in the national team, as the most decisive and consistent player since 2012, but now he is even more. Eden Hazard, who’ll be the captain in France, will get a free role on the left, but the team isn’t built around him. Wilmots expects him to give that extra spark, after a frustrating season. Yannick Carrasco, who showed his talent at Atlético, will probably be on duty on the right.
Lukaku will start the campaign as a first-choice striker, but he’ll have to perform. With Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Michy Batshuayi, Wilmots has selected three other attackers, all with a different profile. The striker in the national team is mainly used as a pivot, not as a goalscorer – which frustrates some of them. One of the reasons why Marouane Fellaini is still the top scorer of this golden generation.
Probable Starting XI: 4-2-3-1: Courtois; Alderweireld, Denayer, Vermaelen, Vertonghen; Witsel, Nainggolan; Carrasco, De Bruyne, Hazard; Lukaku.
- Which Belgium player is going to surprise everyone at the Euro 2016?
This could be Yannick Carrasco’s tournament. Eden Hazard is back to near his best after a lost season, struggling for form and battling against injuries. Kevin De Bruyne showed what he’s capable at Man City, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if both of them suddenly turn up in France. But Carrasco is the unknown factor after an excellent first season at Atlético. He doesn’t look like the typical winger. He’s quite tall, has good feet, but his lightning burst of acceleration often makes the difference: he can open up teams and creates opportunities for teammates. He might bring some of the Diego Simeone mentality to the team too.
- Who is likely to disappoint?
It’s a make or break for Marc Wilmots, Belgium’s national coach. Everyone expects this golden generation to deliver at last. The squad gained experience in Brazil, their first big tournament. Wilmots doesn’t have a big career as a manager, a short stint at Schalke 04 and a failure at STVV. He has created a good group atmosphere, but his tactical skills and the quality of his training sessions have already often been criticised. If Belgium fail to deliver, all heads will turn into his direction.
- What is the realistic aim for Belgium at the Euro 2016 and why?
Everyone expects a better result than in Brazil, where Belgium reached the quarter-finals. So the semi-finals at least.
Secrets of the players
- Axel Witsel
The sky is the limit for Axel Witsel. Since the beginning of this year the Zenit midfielder is the co-owner of LindSky Aviation, a company that trains pilots and sells private jets. Currently he is the ‘Chief Relationship Officer’, but he has the ambitious plan to lead the company when he retires. "While my teammates are playing on their PlayStation, I can read some pilot courses", he said. "After my career I want to get my flying licence."
- Radja Nainggolan
Belgium’s gladiator, but ‘Ninja’, as he’s called in Roma, also has his scars. Radja has always been a fighter – like a tattoo on his left leg reveals. On and off the pitch. His dad left a family of five when he was five and returned to Indonesia – something he would never forgive him. Six years ago he lost his mum after a battle against cancer, euthanasia was carried out. For Radja and his twin sister Riana, who also plays football, their mum meant everything to them. He has a tattoo featuring two wings up his back to his neck, a tribute to his mother. The powerful image also has her date of birth and date of death on it. When he was 17, he moved to Italy. He survived homesickness because he wanted to live his dream: become a professional football player.
- Jan Vertonghen
Belgians love modesty. And, despite his reported salary of £60,000 a week, Vertonghen won a lot of sympathy in October 2015. While his teammates were turning up in their posh cars – Axel Witsel in a Cadillac, Kevin De Bruyne in a fancy SUV – the Tottenham defender was dropped off by his mum in a nine-year-old Toyota Corolla. He was even granted a goodbye kiss. The Corolla has a huge emotional value for the family Vertonghen. It was the last car his parents bought before his dad passed away after a lingering illness. Vertonghen doesn’t have a car in Belgium and always stays with his family when the national squad come together. In London he drives a Porsche.
- Romelu Lukaku
A killer in front of goal, a gangster rapper in the back of his mind. The Everton striker is in love with football, but also had a second passion. He adores music. He arrived at the training camp in May with a huge suitcase. He brought his DJ decks stand, so he can entertain his teammates with his rap music. Lukaku shares some of his favourite songs on Instagram too. There’s a funny video of Lukaku singing gangster rap on request, next to Thibaut Courtois.
- Jordan Lukaku
Romelu’s brother is a fast guy on the pitch, but he was also sentenced to a €2,880 fine and a 12-month driving ban for speeding and driving without a licence last summer. The judge even pointed out he might go to jail if he offends again. It was a last warning sign for the youngest Lukaku. The whole episode and the death of his best friend and Wolfsburg player Junior Malanda – after a car accident – opened his eyes. He became more professional, played an excellent season and pushed his bad image to the background.
Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea)
Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Jean-Francois Gillet (KV Mechelen)
Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur)
Thomas Vermaelen (FC Barcelona)
Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur)
Jason Denayer (Galatasaray Istanbul)
Thomas Meunier (FC Brügge)
Christian Kabasele (KRC Genk)
Jordan Lukaku( KV Ostende)
Laurent Ciman (Montreal Impact)
Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma)
Axel Witsel (Zenit St. Petersburg)
Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City)
Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United)
Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid)
Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur)
Romelu Lukaku (Everton)
Dries Mertens (SSC Napoli)
Divock Origi (Liverpool)
Christian Benteke (Liverpool)
Michy Batshuayi (Olympique Marseille)