Belgium's unheralded Divock Origi, 19, makes most of World Cup call
When Christian Benteke ruptured his Achilles' tendon in the build-up to the World Cup, the thought was - beyond sympathy for the forward, who was excellent in the qualifiers - that it wouldn't matter too much because Belgium had a ready made replacement in Romelu Lukaku.
The coexistence of two top-class powerful, quick strikers born two and a half years apart seemed one of those quirks international football throws up, like when England agonized over which of their two superb goalkeepers, Ray Clemence or Peter Shilton, to select. Cameroon having to choose between Joseph-Antoine Bell or Thomas Nkono. Italy vacillating between Sandro Mazzola and Gianni Rivera. As it's turned out, though, Belgium's best forward in the tournament so far has been unheralded 19-year-old Divock Origi.
The days of the World Cup propelling unknowns to stardom were supposed to be over. We know too much for a player ever again to catch us completely off guard. Or so we thought.
Scouts and devotees of youth tournaments perhaps did know of Origi, as did people who follow the French league closely, but for most, the emergence of a player who has started just 12 games in an 18-month career at Lille has come as a surprise. Before he slammed in the winner for Belgium against Russia, Origi had only previously scored six senior goals.
"It’s my first full season as a professional," Origi said. "Since January I've started to play regularly. I scored some goals, and I was called up for the national team. Everything is going fast! That’s what special about football sometimes. I wouldn’t say I was expecting to get the call, but I knew I was one of the candidates. It was very special for me as a 19-year-old boy to be called up for the World Cup."
Marc Wilmots, Belgium's coach, clearly takes a certain pride in having called up Origi.
"Without Christian Benteke's injury, Divock would not be here," he said. "I have followed him for the last four months. He is a young player, but somebody who is disciplined, who is fast. Nobody knew him, but you can see his qualities - he is integrated into the team, technical, quick and when defense gets tired very good to rely on players like him."
Origi had a key role to play in the only goal against South Korea as well, his shot from 25 yards being saved and bouncing free for Jan Vertonghen to knock in the rebound. The suggestion that Origi might start ahead of Lukaku, who has labored so far in the tournament, though, brought a sharp response from Wilmots.
"No!" he snapped. "I'm not blind. His body isn't ready yet."
Given Origi's apparent muscularity, it's an intriguing reply, but there is perhaps a rawness about him that makes him most effective coming off the bench to take on tired legs.
"When I left the field the defense was tired," said Lukaku after the 1-0 win over South Korea. "It was easier for Divock. He had a good game but it was less of a test for him."
That sounded defensive, a player protecting his own position, and perhaps it was, but there was also a truth to Lukaku's words. He perhaps was thinking of how Steve Clarke used him during his spell on loan with West Bromwich Albion in 2012-13, when he or Shane Long would be used to wear out the opposing defense before the other came on to reap the rewards.
Vertonghen compares Origi to Eden Hazard, another Lille graduate, saying both play "street-football." In an era in which the majority of young players are developed through academies and coached from an early age, there is a desirability of players who have the unpredictability of the street - even if that is ultimately sublimated within a team structure, which is why Wilmots speaks of Origi's discipline and how well he has integrated.
Given his background, perhaps that understanding of team dynamics is no surprise. Origi's father, Mike, also a striker, was a Kenya international for 15 years, and spent the majority of his career in Belgium, helping Genk to two league titles. Origi and and other family members have been in Brazil, and it clearly means a lot to the 19-year-old to have them there. He spoke of being "inspired" at playing in the Maracana, seemingly on the one hand bemused to be catching the eye in the World Cup and on the other to be utterly at ease in the environment.
He will not start against the USA, but that doesn't mean Origi won't again leave a lasting impact.