Kevin De Bruyne: the gloriously unfiltered star who gives oxygen to Belgium

kevin de bruyne: the gloriously unfiltered star who gives oxygen to belgium

Kevin De Bruyne at the 2022 World Cup, posing ahead of Euro 2024 and playing for Genk in 2009. Composite: Guardian Design; Reuters; Uefa/Getty Images; PA Images/Alamy

Frédéric Waseige was beginning to despair. Here he was on the touchline of the Cristal Arena, standing in the pouring rain, waiting to get the green light from the TV studio to start his post-match interview with an 18-year-old Kevin De Bruyne, with no umbrella to protect them from the elements. The teenager, who had just become a regular for Racing Genk, had been the game’s outstanding player; and here he was, getting soaked to the skin, being told every couple of minutes that he’d have to wait a bit longer for the camera to roll and the questions to begin. Waseige knew what it must have felt like for the youngster. He’d been a player too, playing a Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final for FC Liège against Juventus back in 1991, before becoming French-speaking Belgium’s most popular pundit.

He knew that the one place De Bruyne wanted to be right here, right now, was his team’s dressing room, not a now deserted rainswept stadium. So he apologised, again and again, fearing the player might disappear any second. Yet De Bruyne himself seemed unaffected by the wait. “Te tracasse pas” (“no worries”), he kept saying. “I was so embarrassed,” Waseige recalls. “But that’s Kevin for you. Should the same thing happen again today, he’d behave exactly the same way. Te tracasse pas! He never changed. What you see is what you get, and what you get is something unique: a great player who is also a normal person.”

Some would question the adjective “normal” when applied to De Bruyne, for whom a football pitch is a 3D stage to be read and altered to fit his own imaginings. The coaches who looked after him at Gent – when he was a mere child blessed with a shot of such power that his father, in order to protect his plants, forbade him to use his preferred right foot when playing in the garden of the family home – were astonished by his peripheral vision and the quickness of his decision-making. Young Kevin saw things others couldn’t understand, and still does, be it for Manchester City or Belgium. Jérémy Doku, his partner in both teams, has the speed and the skill to unbalance any defence when given the ball at the right time, the right angle and the right pace. But, with the Red Devils at least, no other player seems to be able to find him as KDB unerringly does – without Doku being flagged offside. This, to De Bruyne, is “normal”.

This “normality” comes at a cost. Kevin De Bruyne, whose Belgium enter Euro 2024 with their first game against Slovakia on Monday, has zero interest in learning how to disguise his thoughts and keep his reactions in check. This does not mean that he is an individual prone to sudden, uncontrollable mood shifts and bursts of temper; just that what he feels he shows, and what he thinks he says. He knows he’s better than most, almost everyone else in fact, but he does not consider himself superior to anyone because of that, which is not as paradoxical as it sounds. There is not an ounce of smugness or arrogance in him. He just cannot see why he should use his exceptional gift to belittle, deceive or bully others. He is unfiltered, gloriously so.

At the 2022 World Cup, while his teammates were celebrating what would prove to be Michi Batshuayi’s winning goal in their opening game against Canada, he ran to Roberto Martínez’s technical area to complain about the way Belgium were hitting long balls when they could have exploited the gaps he could see in the Canadian midfield. Toby Alderweireld tried to join the discussion in order to remonstrate with his midfielder and remind him of his place. De Bruyne told him what he could do with these remonstrations, with not a second thought given about the cameras which were trained on him. The natural had behaved naturally, that is all.

The truth is that, for some reason, De Bruyne was not feeling happy at the 2022 World Cup. His body language did not “betray” it – as there was no attempt to conceal some hidden suffering known to himself alone. What TV viewers could feel five minutes into the first game back at home was felt 10 times over in the Belgian camp in Qatar. Perhaps it was sheer tiredness: that game against Canada was his 48th for club and country in the calendar year. Perhaps it was frustration about his own level of performance during the preparations for the tournament. What is certain is that it was not a lack of willing or disinterest in the cause. Something just did not feel right to him, and he was incapable of hiding it.

The problem is that those around him who usually feed off his talent were suddenly deprived of the oxygen they needed to expand their lungs to the full. De Bruyne is not just their conductor; he’s the oboe player who gives the pre-concert A everyone tunes to. When he drifts off-key, the result is a cacophony. So they too became laboured, unfocused, hesitant. An excellent Morocco beat them in the next game, and a scoreless draw against Croatia was not enough for them to progress to the round of 16. If you wish to know whether the sun will shine on Belgium or not, there is no better barometer to consult than De Bruyne’s.

The bad news for Belgium’s opponents to come is that the Euro 2024 version of De Bruyne bears no relation to the grump who, very much against his own will, looked a lost soul at Qatar 2022. The hamstring injury which made him miss a large part of the 2023-24 season with Manchester City appears to have done him a world of good. For most footballers, forced absences are a form of purgatory, if not hell. For De Bruyne, it was just one of these things, a bump in the road and a chance to drive the kids to school for a change, being what he likes to be most: normal. Fifteen months elapsed between his recital in a 3-2 victory over Germany in March of last year and the goal he scored on his return in a routine 2-0 win over Montenegro on 6 June. He looks fit, happy, dangerous. He looks himself again. He always is.

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