In the world of soccer, Belgium's Golden Generation has been getting a lot of press attention in recent months. Lille's Eden Hazard and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany have been the ones grabbing most headlines, but there's a young player at Racing Genk who could be rivaling those players in the near future. It's time to talk about Kevin De Bruyne.
Two weeks ago, De Bruyne destroyed Club Brugge by scoring a hat trick in a nine-goal thriller; that led to opposition coach Adrie Koster getting his marching orders. At the Cristal Stadium, three days later, all eyes were on the 20-year-old De Bruyne, when Genk met Chelsea in the Champions' League. Although Genk gained an honorable draw against the wealthy Londoners (Chelsea's squad is valued at around €460 million, about 10 times that of Genk), De Bruyne didn't have one of his better nights. Usually deployed on the left wing, he tried to move to a more central role in the first half but he achieved little. He was responsible for setting up Genk's goal but he will have been disappointed with his 90 minutes of work.
That would tend to back Genk coach Mario Been's belief that De Bruyne still has a lot to learn. De Bruyne's only played around 60 league games for Genk due to a bout of glandular fever and a serious leg injury since breaking into the team as a teenager. De Bruyne was a major force (five goals, 16 assists) in the team's push to Belgium's Jupiler League title last season. Despite his relative inexperience, he's often been in the media spotlight and was close to signing for Chelsea in the summer. The move was blocked by his club but it is universally assumed that he will be on his way to Stamford Bridge at the end of the current season.
De Bruyne is two-footed and has spent his entire Genk career on the left wing, where his pace, strength and soccer brain have combined to make him a major asset. Mario Been said before the match with Club Brugge that he expected more from De Bruyne than he did from the other players; his response could be seen in the 5-4 win.
Strangely, despite his talent, De Bruyne has rarely played for the Belgian youth sides and has so far received only one international cap, a friendly with Finland in 2010. Admittedly, competition is strong for wing positions in the Belgium team with Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Moussa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli all in with a shout. De Bruyne's time will come though and he once said he preferred to operate just behind the main striker, a position he played in his youth team days.
Chelsea's Andre Villas-Boas recently compared De Bruyne to Enzo Scifo, which appears to be a poor comparison. I see more of a young Gareth Bale in the Genk winger, but with a better soccer brain. He could be special if he increases his body strength. Belgium have two friendly matches in the coming weeks, against Romania and France. When the squad was announced yesterday -- and it's a remarkably strong one -- De Bruyne's name figured. Belgium coach George Leeskens said he had selected De Bruyne for his form in the last few weeks and not just because of the hat trick against Club Brugge.
It remains to be seen if De Bruyne does go to Chelsea. He recently said Lukaku had been right to go there as he would improve by 30 percent just by training with such players, whereas by staying at Anderlecht, he would have improved by only 10 percent. It's a dilemma faced by many young players, as to whether they stay or do they go.
For the last word, we should go back to Been. He warned De Bruyne about thinking only of a move to a big club at a young age; he reasoned that some players -- perhaps with Romelu Lukaku in mind -- did that only to rot on the bench and see their careers stall.
John Chapman is a freelance writer living in Brussels who often finds himself writing about Belgian football -- usually via @Belgofoot and http://belgofoot.squarespace.com.