Boy wonder Januzaj fulfilling his destiny
Influence of his father has been key to rapid rise of Adnan Januzaj, writes John Chapman
It is March 1, 2011, at Neerpede, home of the Anderlecht's academy. Charleroi under 17s are the visitors. Within two minutes, Anderlecht take the lead through a fragile-looking boy who is later named 'man' of the match. But he is not a man, he is a boy and a year younger than the other players.
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 youngster was extremely talented, but that it was a combination of the young man's skills and the older man's determination that set the Januzajs apart from the rest.
"I remember him being not as tall and strong as his team-mates, 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. A few months into his debut season, Januzaj has become one of United's best players, one of the few to offer spark and creativity in a midfield lacking skill and invention. Some had seen it coming, one of them being 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 became the youngest coach of a Belgian first division team when he took charge of Charleroi at the age of 31, provides 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.
"For example, in 2008-2009 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 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 this is something that made Adnan mentally strong."
The son of Kosovo-Albanian refugees, Januzaj was born in Brussels in 1995, six months after the 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 Kosovo in 1992 and settled in Koekelberg, one of 19 districts in Brussels. As a youngster, Januzaj played for FC Brussels, and was recognised as an exceptional talent by Anderlecht as a 10-year-old. He stayed there for six years, until United came knocking.
Jean Kindermans, head of Anderlecht's academy, has fond memories of a player who is now wanted by at least six 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 Vivacite 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 moved to 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 it was said money was 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 Ferguson's reign at Old Trafford. This was clearly going to be a season of transition and Januzaj is seizing his chance at this time of upheaval. When he played at Anderlecht, he was always the playmaker in the No 10 shirt. That is where he could be stationed for United, but Januzaj is versatile and in the immediate future David Moyes is likely to use him where he is most needed.
Two former Belgian internationals, Franky van der Elst and Marc Degryse, have been generous in their praise. "The way Januzaj moves when he receives the ball and the way he's able to see things so quickly reminds me of [the former Holland international] Robbie Rensenbrink," says Van der Elst. "When I saw first saw Januzaj playing for Manchester United, I immediately tweeted Gert Verheyen [a former international striker and now coach of Belgium's under 19s] to say he had to get that boy into the squad."
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 first played for Anderlecht, his father has insisted that his son should focus on his club career. So Januzaj has refused to play for the Belgium junior teams. Apart from Belgium, his country of birth, Croatia, Turkey, Albania and Serbia have also been mentioned as having -- somewhat spurious -- claims. However, the recent FIFA ruling that Kosovo would be allowed to play friendlies could mean Januzaj opting 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.
Jean Kindermans ended a recent BBC interview saying it was sad that Januzaj had left Anderlecht at 16 as it would have been easier to stay until he was, say, 21 or 22, and then secure a lucrative move. Recalling Januzaj's departure, Kindermans bemoans the fact that scouts queue to get into Anderlecht's under 14 games, take videos and chat to the boys 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.