Adnan Januzaj – a man for all countries

By | January 24, 2014

Marc Wilmots - recently went to Old Trafford (rumoured to try to convince Januzaj to play for Belgium)

Marc Wilmots – recently went to Old Trafford (rumoured to try to convince Januzaj to play for Belgium)

It’s March 1, 2011, at Neerpeerde, home of the Anderlecht Academy. Charleroi U17s are the visitors. Within two minutes, Anderlecht take the lead through a fragile-looking boy who is later elected “man” of the match. But of course he is not a man; he is a boy and he is a year younger than the others. A group of parents, who along with a cluster of scouts make up the majority of the crowd, are not happy as it is common knowledge that the boy in question is about to join Manchester United. The feeling is that he is keeping someone else out of the team. Prowling the touchline is a man wearing his customary Anderlecht shirt. The boy is Adnan Januzaj. The man is his father.

A lot of things can be said about parents on the touchline – few of them good – but there is no doubt that Abedin Januzaj has had a positive impact on Adnan’s career. Speaking to Yannick Ferreira, who coached Januzaj when he was playing for the Anderlecht Under-15s, it becomes clear that the young player was extremely talented but that it was a combination of the younger man’s skills and the older man’s determination that set the Januzajs apart from everyone else.

“I remember him being not as tall and strong as his teammates, but his technique, his game reading and his left foot were so good that he was the best player we had,” Ferreira says. “If I have to define him as a young footballer in a few words: natural class, talent and love of the game. Even with all those skills, nobody thought that he would progress so quickly. Am I surprised that he plays for Manchester United’s first team? Not at all. But so early?! That’s just amazing! His game has taken on another dimension after a few years in England.”

Another dimension is quite clearly an understatement. Januzaj has only come on the scene this season, yet he has, in a few months, become one of Manchester United’s best players, one of the few who can offer some kind of spark and creativity in a midfield almost devoid of world-class skill and invention. Some people had seen it coming, of course, one of them being Sir Alex Ferguson, who said last season: “Adnan is a beautifully-balanced player. He’s only 18 and has to grow into his frame but he has good balance, good acceleration and is a very good technical player.”

Ferreira, who later became the youngest ever coach of a Belgian first division team when he took charge of Charleroi at the age of 31, gives further insight into Januzaj’s application and professionalism from an early age. “Adnan was a young boy who really loved the game. He was always disappointed when the training session was over or when I gave the players a day off. To give you an example, in 2008-2009 (U15, but he was one year younger) we played our league games on a Saturday afternoon. The Sunday was a day off but I planned a training session for the players who had not been selected and for the ones who didn’t play much. Adnan played every single game from the first until the last minute, but he came to every Sunday session.”

“I’ve had a lot of chats with his father. He’s a kind person. Very demanding, but I think that’s what young players need if they want to reach the top. He watched every single training session and game. Even when Adnan played well, he always had some things to tell his son to help him to improve. He was not the kind of father saying after each game that his son was the best and he played a great game. He was always demanding improvement. And I think this is something that made Adnan mentally strong.”

Charly Musonda Junior - lAnderlecht's Jean Kindermans hoped to unite Musonda, Januzaj and Dennis Praet in Anderlecht's midfield

Charly Musonda Junior – lAnderlecht’s Jean Kindermans hoped to unite Musonda, Januzaj and Dennis Praet in Anderlecht’s midfield

The son of Kosovo-Albanian refugees, Januzaj was born in Brussels in 1995, six months after the current national team manager Marc Wilmots sat on the bench watching Belgium lose in the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup. Januzaj’s parents had fled war-torn Kosovo in 1992 and settled in Koekelberg, one of Brussels’ 19 districts, where family members were already living. As a youngster, Januzaj played for FC Brussels – a club that rose from the ashes of RWDM – and was an exceptional talent at an early age. Januzaj was spotted by Anderlecht as a 10-year old and stayed there for six years, until Manchester United came knocking on the Brussels club’s door.

Jean Kindermans, head of Anderlecht’s academy, has fond memories of a player who is now wanted by at least six different national teams. “He was small and frail with thin legs. He had a phenomenal left foot. He has always been a class above his age. How he managed to control the ball, and at the same time protect it directly, was amazing, “ he told Vivacité Radio last year. “His only weak point was his speed. This was compensated by his vision and his ability to think three times as fast as the others.”

“I remember that his father was always on the touchline, always wearing an Anderlecht shirt. His father was very demanding as he knew his son was talented. Adnan was very well advised by his dad and he is reaping the benefits today. His father said to Anderlecht – ‘it’s Anderlecht who educates my son, it’s not the national team who will give him a contract or help him to develop. He doesn’t want to rush things and he doesn’t want to be an international player before getting a place in the first team in a club like Manchester United.”

When Januzaj left for Manchester, one of the theories at the time was that his father wanted his son to leave as Anderlecht preferred to focus on building up his strength rather than improve his technical ability. Whatever the reason, and money was said to be not the main issue, the Januzaj family refused to sign Anderlecht’s offer of a contract when he reached 16, the minimum age in Belgium, despite a guaranteed place in the first team squad and – for a country like Belgium – attractive terms.

Januzaj’s promotion to the first team at Old Trafford has come remarkably quickly and has coincided with the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign at Old Trafford. This was obviously going to be a season of transition and the young Januzaj is seizing his chance at this time of upheaval. When he played at Anderlecht as a youngster, he was always the playmaker in the number ‘10’ shirt. That’s where he could soon be stationed at Old Trafford but the player is versatile and David Moyes is likely to use him where he is most needed in the immediate future.

Two ex-Belgian internationals, Franky Van der Elst and Marc Degryse, have been generous in their praise of the young player. “The way that Januzaj moves when he receives the ball and the way he’s able to see things so quickly reminds me of Robbie Rensenbrink,” says Van der Elst. “ When I saw first saw Januzaj playing for Manchester United, I immediately tweeted Gert Verheyen (ex international striker and current coach of Belgium’s U19s) to say he had to get that boy into the squad.” Marc Degryse also sees Januzaj as a special talent. “For his age, Januzaj has great confidence and guts, but also flair, vision and elegance. Importantly, he’s always looking to hurt opponents in the final 25 metres – and that’s rare.”

As for his international future, ever since Januzaj started playing for Anderlecht, his father has insisted that his son focus on his club career. This has meant that Januzaj has refused to play for the Belgium U15 and U16 teams. Apart from Belgium, his country of birth, Croatia, Turkey and Serbia have also been mentioned as having – somewhat spurious – claims on the young tyro but these can be safely dismissed. Albania is in the running, with just under 45,000 Albanian supporters ‘liking’ a Facebook page aimed at Januzaj entitled ‘Say Yes to Albania’. However, the recent announcement by football’s governing body that Kosovo would be allowed to play friendlies against FIFA member states could see Januzaj opt for that fledgling state, a decision that would certainly please his father. The other option, that of waiting until 2018 and then playing for his adopted country England, remains a remote possibility.

Kindermans ended a recent BBC interview saying it was sad that Januzaj had left Anderlecht too soon and that he had taken the difficult route by leaving at 16 as it would have been easier to stay until he was, say 21-22, and then get a lucrative transfer to a bigger club. Remembering Januzaj’s departure, Kindermans bemoans the fact that scouts queue to get into Anderlecht’s U14 games, take videos and chat to players and their parents. Januzaj’s father has long gone from Brussels but doubtless he has an Anderlecht shirt hanging up somewhere in his Manchester home.

This article first appeared in the Observer on January 19, 2014

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