In recent years Belgian football has established itself as a talent factory. Players such as Axel Witsel, Thibaut Courtois, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne stand as the perfect example of a Jupiler Pro League nurturing and developing tomorrow’s stars. We look at the top ten fledgling talents currently shining in Belgium’s league system.
1) Dennis Praet – Anderlecht – Midfielder – 18 years old
Praet made his Anderlecht debut at just 17, the same age as two other club icons Enzo Scifo and Ludo Coeck. The talented attacking midfielder provided two assists in the Brussels-based club’s 4-0 win against Lommel in the round of 16 of the Belgian Cup, while in the next round he scored his first goal against Rupel Boom. This season the arrival of Dutch coach John van der Brom has given Praet’s progress a real boost, with the midfielder quickly promoted to a regular spot in the Anderlecht starting eleven. He started the season with a goal that helped his side to win the Belgian Super Cup against Lokeren. And last November, Praet showcased his technical skill, scoring from near the corner flag in a clash with Mechelen in the Belgian Cup.
2) Bernard “Junior” Malanda – Zulte Waregem – Defender/Midfielder – 18 years old
Labelled “the Brussels beast” for his impressive physique, Malanda left the Anderlecht academy at 13 to join Lille’s youth factory. Last summer however, homesickness and a desire for first team football saw him head back to Belgium on a three-year deal with Zulte Waregem. It took only six months for Malanda to become the hottest name on the Belgian market. His tough performances as a defensive midfielder (he can also play as a centre-back) have been key in Zulte Waregem’s superb season so far – they currently sit second in the league. The Belgium Under-19 captain is sure to attract much interest in the summer.
3) Massimo Bruno – Anderlecht – Winger – 19 years old
Last summer Bruno became Anderlecht’s €17M-man, as he provided the assist for Dieumerci Mbokani to score the goal which took the Belgian giants into the Champions League group stage. Before the current season, the winger with Italian roots (his father is from Sicily and his mother from Naples) had played just one game in the Belgian league, at Charleroi. Alongside team-mate Praet, Bruno is a symbol of coach Van der Brom’s youth policy, while his speed along the flanks is currently one of Anderlecht’s most dangerous weapons. Bruno’s father Alfonso is a survivor of the infamous Heysel Stadium disaster.
4) Imoh Ezekiel – Standard Liege – Striker – 19 years old
Ezekiel landed at Standard Liege due to getting in hot water. The first time the Nigerian striker came to Belgium was for a trial with Club Brugge, however the temperature was so cold that the youngster kept his feet in hot water for so long that he burned them. The Flemish club were disappointed enough that they let him leave without giving him a chance. Then in January 2012, Ezekiel returned to Belgium for a six-month loan at Standard Liege, where he impressed due to his speed. In the current season he has shown a nose for goal too, scoring 12 goals so far and relegating summer signings Marvin Ogunjimi and Dudu Biton to the bench. After Marouane Fellaini, Igor de Camargo, Steven Defour, Dieumerci Mbokani, Milan Jovanovic and Axel Witsel, Ezekiel could be the next gold mind for the Rouches.
5) Thorgan Hazard – Zulte Waregem – Forward – 19 years old
Thorgan Hazard is Eden Hazard’s younger brother, though he likes to say that any comparison between himself and the Chelsea star is “just a waste of time”. Like Eden, Thorgan left Belgium for northern France (where his parents judged the training facilities to be much better than in their homeland) at a very young age; however Thorgan joined Lens – where he won the Under-16 national league in 2008/09 – and not Lille. Last summer Chelsea signed the two brothers and one month later Thorgan was sent on a season-long loan to Zulte Waregem, where he quickly became a key figure as a left-winger in Franck Dury’s 4-2-3-1. Alongside the Frenchmen Franck Berrier and Jonathan Delaplace, Hazard, who last October scored his first goal against Charleroi and last weekend hit a superb long-range strike against Lokeren, forms part of the hottest creative midfield in the Belgian league.
6) Ayanda Patosi – Lokeren – Midfielder – 20 years old
Patosi is without doubt the best free-kick taker in the Jupiler Pro League, alongside Elyaniv Barda and Benjamin De Ceulaer. The latter was his teacher last season at Lokeren, where the South African midfielder proved to be an extremely quick learner. His goal against Gent in the quarter-final of the Belgian Cup last year was crucial in Lokeren’s campaign that ended with the club lifting the trophy, the first major silverware in their history. With De Ceulaer heading to Genk last summer, Patosi has shown he can stand on his own two feet. Vision, tactical awareness and a great shot (last November he scored an outstanding goal against Standard Liege, arguably the goal of the season) are the ASD Cape Town academy product’s strongest points; he was scouted by Lokeren during a tour of Belgium.
7) Laurens De Bock – Club Brugge – Defender – 20 years old
Since De Bock joined Lokeren’s first team at the age of 16 under coach Georges Leekens, he has been considered one of the most promising defenders in the Belgian game. The Flemish defender is a Jan Vertonghen-style player, able to operate right across the defensive line and possessing an accurate and powerful shot. With two assists against Gent and Lierse last season he helped in Lokeren’s winning of the Belgian Cup. De Bock’s solid performances opened the door to the Belgium squad and last November he was called up for the international friendly against Romania. In January, De Bock moved from Lokeren to Club Brugge for €3.5M.
8) Maxime Lestienne – Club Brugge – Winger – 20 years old
In 2010, Lestienne became a free agent due to Mouscron going bankrupt. The winger had the opportunity to join Anderlecht, PSV Eindhoven (who sent Belgium idol Luc Nilis to convince him to sign), Lille and Everton. But, out of the blue, Lestienne signed for Club Brugge, opting to continue his development step by step and wear the shirt of the club of which he has always been a true supporter. Curiously, the left winger had made his debut at the age of 16, under Enzo Scifo, in Mouscron’s 5-1 victory over the Flemish club. After an ankle ligament injury sidelined the youngster for two months in February 2012, he has returned in style in the current campaign, forging a fine partnership with Colombian striker Carlos Bacca. With eleven goals scored so far in the Jupiler Pro League, Lestienne is chipping in a valuable number of strikes for Club Brugge.
9) Michy Batshuayi – Standard Liege – Striker – 19 years old
Batshuayi was Standard Liege’s revelation last season. The Belgian striker with Congolese roots impressed from his very first game, in the Champions League preliminary round against Zurich, becoming a regular and finishing the season with six goals in 18 league games. Batshuayi is a modern forward who can play on the flanks in a 4-3-3 or as a central striker in a 4-4-2. At the age of 14, the Brussels-born youngster joined Standard Liege’s academy after being forced to leave Anderlecht due to disciplinary problems. In Liege, it was former coach Dominque D’Onofrio who brought him into the first team in the 2010/11 campaign – that year he scored 24 goals for Standard Liege’s Under-17s, eight for the Under-19s and one for the Under-21s. This season Batshuayi has already equalled his number of league goals for the previous campaign, providing four assists too.
10) John Jairo Ruiz – Royal Mouscron-Peruwelz – Forward – 19 years old
The most exciting talent of Belgium’s second tier, Jairo Ruiz landed at Royal-Mouscron-Peruwelz on loan from Lille. He was scouted by the French club during the 2011 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Colombia, where he was the youngest player in the tournament and scored three goals. Lille were quicker than Barcelona, Inter and Rubin Kazan to his signature, snapping up the quick, technically gifted forward, who then made a good impact in France with the club’s reserve team before being sidelined by a number of injuries. Jairo Ruiz was sent to Belgium to recover his best form and gain experience, and so far the 19-year-old has scored eight goals in 18 games, with braces against Royal Boussu Dour Borinage, Sint-Truiden and Sint-Niklaas respectively.
Betting on football? Check out Inside Bet before you bet!