NEIL Cameron asks one of Belgian football’s finest exports to explain the reasons behind his nation’s recent upsurge
BELGIUM has never been viewed as an especially fashionable country. The phrase ‘interesting Belgians’ is right up there with ‘funny Jim Davidson jokes’ in the eyes of those who haven’t actually visited this fine country, in that they don’t believe either entity exists.
This is an ill-deserved reputation. Brussels is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Newcastle fans who visited Brugge two weeks ago returned singing the city’s praises. Oh, and the beer is pretty good as well.
And yet the Belgian tourist board have always had a tricky job. However, they are getting some help in raising the nation’s profile from their professional footballers. Belgium, all of a sudden is almost fashionable, certainly in footballing terms, and Sunderland can boast one of their best exports in Simon Mignolet.
The goalkeeper has been outstanding since getting into the first-team last January to the extent he has become a stalwart of one of European football’s most exciting international sides.
There is something in the water over in the land of moules-frites and Sunderland have reaped the benefit of this deep pool of talent. Mignolet said: “We are doing well in the qualifiers for the World Cup and I know everybody is talking about us. What we all have to do now is make sure we do what everyone is saying and fulfil our potential.
“I don’t really know why we are doing so well at the moment. I just think it is a bunch of players who have come through together with a lot of talent.
“Also it is a fact that a lot of Belgians are playing in major league abroad for big teams, and that makes the individual players more confident and experienced. I think with the likes of Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal) and Marouane Fellaini (Everton) arrived here first and they showed England and the Premier League that there are a lot of good players in Belgium.
“Now other clubs accept us and it is easier to come here from Belgium than before. There is a lot more talent to find in the ranks there.”
The list of Belgians doing well in the Premier League is lengthy. It says a lot that Mignolet omitted to mention the best of the lot, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
One of them, Romelu Lukaku of West Bromwich Albion, is on Wearside this afternoon. Sunderland’s last home match saw Aston Villa’s own Belgian star Christian Benteke run riot. Mignolet said: “I will come up against Romelu on Saturday and I look forward to it. He is a good striker with a lot of potential who scores goals. But hopefully he won’t score on Saturday. We have to be on our toes to keep him quiet.”
And then there is the Sunderland’s goalkeeper himself, who has been outstanding – he’s had to be.
Belgium has a decent history of producing good goalkeepers. His heroes were World Cup legends Jean-Marie Pfaff, and Michel Preud’homme. They have another one to boast about now.
Mignolet said: “I am pleased with the way things have gone for me, but your own form always comes second. The first thing is to get points on the board. It is good to get results.
“As a player the only thing you want to do it to win and everything else is secondary. I was pleased we won against Fulham, that is what we are here for, but personally I can’t complain at how the season has gone so far.”
This attitude is commendable. His shots-to-saves ratio is up there with the best in the Premier League, but this is one man not interested in personal glory.
Mignolet said: “The only stat I read is where we are in the table. I think football is about winning games. A personal stat always comes second.
“You are only as good a keeper as your last game. I don’t want to look too far behind me because there is another game on Saturday. I must make sure I do my job and that we win as a team.”
Mignolet hasn’t done badly considering that he only took up goalkeeping at 14. He revealed: “I used to play as a midfielder growing up. I played for my academy where later I turned pro as a keeper. But then I grew very quickly and because of my size they said I wasn’t quick enough to make it. But please don’t say I can’t run. They sent me away to a local team and I said to my dad, who used to be a keeper, I now want to be a goalie. I changed from one day into the other. I only played for half a season at my local team then the professional academy resigned me. I am 24 now and have had just ten years as a goalie. It is not a lot.
“If you only play for half a season and then you get to the professional academy there must be a bit of talent for it in me. On the other hand there was still a long way to go to make it. You have to be lucky as well.
“Obviously it helped that I could play a bit too. From being 14 to becoming a pro was a long road. That is when I made my decision to be a goalkeeper and enjoy myself there.
“I don’t try to play outfield in training, not anymore. The main thing is for me to do my job well.”