Most loyal football followers know of Belgium’s two iconic footballers, Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany. Eden Hazard is a bonafide superstar for Chelsea FC and is consistently mentioned as one of the best attacking players in the world. Vincent Kompany, synonymous with his strength and poise in the back, has led the Manchester City back line in England and Europe for years.
Both players are the faces of their respective franchises and have played critical roles in their club’s trophy campaigns in the past five years.
But what about the others? Which lesser-known Belgian footballers are destined to become household names at EURO 2016? Here are a few of the players whose presence will be indispensable for the Belgian national team this summer.
Kevin De Bruyne
In the 2015-16 season, Kevin De Bruyne has flourished within his new club Manchester City and appears poised for a breakout performance at EURO 2016. A versatile attacking midfielder with exceptional vision and passing, De Bruyne has grown into one of the best playmakers in the Premier League.
De Bruyne began his career at Belgian side Genk before his transfer to Chelsea in January 2012. Despite a successful loan spell with German club Werder Bremen during the 2012-13 campaign, the Belgian was sold by Wolfsburg in January 2014 after failed to convince the former Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho that he warranted regular game time in west London.
In his solitary full season at Wolfsburg, De Bruyne acted as the catalyst behind Wolfsburg’s DFB-Pokal victory and astonishing second-place finish in the Bundesliga. From his preferred central role, De Bruyne tallied 16 goals and 27 assists in all competitions, including 21 assists in the Bundesliga, which led all of Europe’s top 5 leagues and set a Bundesliga record. Last summer, following his prodigious performance for Wolfsburg, English giant Manchester City procured De Bruyne to the Etihad for a club-record fee of £58 million.
While De Bruyne’s debutant season with Manchester City has been riddled with injury spells, when healthy, De Bruyne has proven to be worth every penny for the club. De Bruyne has collected a respectable 6 goals and 9 assists in Europe’s top league. City’s celebrated attacking trio (De Bruyne, striker Sergio Aguero, and midfielder David Silva) have scored a whopping 19 goals in the only seven league games they have played together. Especially after Manchester City’s defeat of French side PSG in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, in which De Bruyne’s late strike secured their place in the semis for the first time in club history, the future looks bright for both De Bruyne and Manchester City.
Already on the cusp of greatness, De Bruyne will look to become a household name at EURO 2016. Just 24, De Bruyne’s poise and awareness will be critical if Belgium are to make a run at the title. Many pundits believe Belgium’s hopes rest squarely upon how the Belgium attacking unit meshes together. We believe that EURO 2016 could act as De Bruyne’s “coming-out” party a la James Rodriguez at the 2014 World Cup.
One of the few active Belgian players with more than 60 international caps, Axel Witsel is ready to lead the Red Devils to the promised land at EURO 2016. While only 28, Witsel still feels like a veteran amongst the youthful Red Devils. From Witsel’s ideal center defensive midfield role, he acts as the engine room, spanning the space in front of the defense while pushing the team forward on the break.
Witsel started his professional career with the esteemed Belgian side Standard Liege in 2006. Two years later, the teenager was a key member of the Belgian Pro League title winning squad, forming a young core of midfielders with the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Steven Defour. Witsel’s time at Standard Liege was not without controversy, however. In August 2009, Witsel was was banned for eight matches after stomping on an opponent’s ankle and breaking it. This incident highlighted Witsel’s aggressive style of play.
In the summer of 2011, Witsel signed for Portuguese club Benfica on a five-year contract. Witsel shone in his lone season in Portugal, helping the team win their UEFA Champions League group. Following this short stint, oil-backed Russian club Zenit activated his 40 million release clause.
Witsel’s time in Russia has been tumultuous, to say the least. Zenit’s purchases of Witsel and Brazilian winger Hulk prompted a Zenit ultra group to publicly issue a manifesto denouncing the club’s signing of black players, sparking the latest racism controversy to blight European football. On the pitch, Witsel’s performances have won over many of the Zenit supporters. Witsel has been a first team regular in the side that has won the Russian Premier League in the past two seasons. Despite these successes, Witsel has appeared unsettled at the club in recent months, repeatedly stating to the media that he wants a transfer to one of the “bigger leagues”.
Off the pitch, Witsel is one of the figureheads of the movement towards a new Belgian identity that welcomes immigrants. Witsel’s father is from the small French island of Martinique located in the Caribbean. Along with a host of other young Belgian footballers, Witsel carries the torch for this crusade. The fact that Witsel has captained the Red Devils several times on the international level proves that a new sentiment is prevailing in Belgium.
Already one of the top three goalkeepers in the world, Belgian netminder Thibaut Courtois may very well be the most vital piece of the Belgian jigsaw puzzle for EURO 2016. With his lean and lanky 6’ 7” frame, Courtois resembers a swimmer rather than a footballer. But his lightning-quick reflexes and sensational mobility in the box will be essential in thwarting opponents’ chances in front of goal.
Like Kevin De Bruyne, Courtois progressed through the Genk youth system, starting for the senior side that claimed the 2010-11 Belgian Pro League title when he was only 18. That summer, Chelsea secured his services shipping Courtois to Spanish club Atletico Madrid for an extended loan. In Madrid, Courtois blossomed into an international prodigy.
Quickly into his stint with the club, Courtois earned the first team goalkeeper position. As the clean sheets and man-of-the-match performances began amassing, the individual accolades and honors soon followed. In back-to-back seasons, Courtois was awarded the La Liga Zamora trophy for the lowest “goal-to-games” ratio. In 2014, his greatest season in Spain, he carried his team to the UEFA Champions League Final against arch-rival Real Madrid. His outstanding performances won him La Liga Goalkeeper of the Year and a spot in the UEFA Champions League Team of the Season, as well as Belgian Sportsman of the Year. The following season, he returned to Stamford Bridge to lead Chelsea to the Premier League title.
If Belgium are to live up to their high expectations for EURO 2016, it will likely be thanks to the massive mitts of their man between the sticks. Courtois will need to replicate his club successes for his country. He has single-handedly kept Atletico Madrid and Chelsea in games and tournaments; can he translate it onto the international stage?
By Nick Salzman, Sam Skinner, and Will Feldman
How to Cite this Article: “Belgian Players to Watch at Euro 216” Written by Nick Salzman, Will Feldman, and Sam Skinner (2016), European Cup 2016 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/tournament-guides/european-cup-2016-guide/belgium/belgian-players-…h-at-euro-2016-2/(accessed on (date)).