There has been a rumour around Kevin De Bruyne since he emerged as a teenage prodigy at Genk that he could have played for England, by virtue of his mother having been born in Ealing. Sat in a small office at Chelsea’s training ground this week, this comes as a surprise to the Belgium international.
“Really?” he says. “But she was born in Burundi.”
The Football Association can rest easy. Anna De Bruyne spent much of her childhood in the west London suburb of Ealing but only after her father’s career with an oil company had moved the family from Burundi to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, and thence to Ealing. It is a quirk of family history that one of Kevin’s uncles still lives in Ealing, just 10 miles from Stamford Bridge.
Kevin spent Christmases there as a child, “because in England you make much more of it”, and when he was part of the Genk team that played Chelsea in the Champions League two years ago, there was a family reunion in London to watch him play. “My mother has an English mentality,” he says, “but I am fully Belgian.”
His Belgium team need one more point in their penultimate World Cup qualifier against Croatia next month to book a place at the World Cup finals. As for life at Chelsea, however, De Bruyne is still finding his way. Yesterday Jose Mourinho was very tough in his analysis of the 22-year-old. It was less, “We need to talk about Kevin” and more “Kevin needs to get his act together”.
Asked whether he had been impressed by De Bruyne’s performance against Swindon in the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, Mourinho replied “not so much”. “The next time Kevin is on the pitch, he has to think he’s playing for his next appearance. At Werder Bremen [on loan last season] he played every game. Here he’s not playing every game. In Bremen he didn’t need to prove himself so much. This is a different reality. He’s competing against very good players, so every minute he’s on the pitch he has to work really hard.”
The Chelsea manager does not pull his punches. He could have allowed De Bruyne to go on loan this summer, or even sold him but, 18 months after the club paid £7m to Genk, the Belgian was called in from the cold and installed in the first-team squad. It has been hard going.
He began pre-season strongly, picked up an injury, returned to start against Hull City on the first day of the season and then Manchester United at Old Trafford. De Bruyne himself would concede that the Swindon game was his worst yet.
“It’s maybe been up and down,” he says. “In the last four years even though I have had to fight for my spot, I managed it at Genk and at Bremen.
“At both clubs I fought for it and then I became more important. Here it is more difficult. It is the usual thing when you have big players and a big squad. Whoever is on the bench always says he isn’t playing enough. I work hard and try to do my best. And I try to show on the pitch, even when I only get five minutes, that I can do something.
“I am a fighter. I learned it at Genk in my first year when we were fighting against going down. Also at Bremen last year it was very difficult. We had to fight more often than not. I will fight again to earn my place.”
He was signed under the Chelsea reign of Andre Villas-Boas, manager of today’s opponents Tottenham, and then loaned back to Genk for the remainder of that season. He played with Chelsea in pre-season last year and then embarked on the season’s loan at Bremen, where he was voted the Bundesliga’s young player of the year.
In Germany, he was in demand. Borussia Dortmund wanted to sign him, and Bayer Leverkusen too. “There were some teams interested in buying me but the manager [Mourinho] said he wanted me to stay. If he wants me to stay I cannot say anything. I just have to show everybody here that I can play football and I can help the team.
“It was maybe a little bit of a temptation. Dortmund is a big club and I really liked the league there. I was doing well and physically I was feeling good but I didn’t make any problems when the manager said you have to stay here. I just said OK, and I will work.”
De Bruyne has come through difficult tests before. At 14, he left behind his home life in the village of Drongen outside Ghent with parents Herwig, a lower league player himself, and Anna to join Genk’s academy and only saw his family at weekends. Nowadays he is happily independent in his Battersea apartment.
“Chelsea came up with a good sporting plan for me,” he says. “Money is important but the most important thing for me is to play football and then I’m happy. OK, you want to earn a good amount of money to be secure but if I chose money I would go to Russia and already have a lot more. I like to play football and that is it... for me the sporting [aspect] is more important than financial.
“It is something my parents taught me. I am not somebody who spends a lot of money in my life. I keep it for later when I want to do something, for vacations – because we don’t have a lot of time off. During the season I am at home. I cook myself good food. I’m happy. I have lived alone from the age of 18.”
He points out that he has already played around 150 league games in three European top-flight divisions. It is the kind of top-level experience, I venture, that his English peers struggle to accumulate.
“The Premier League is without a doubt the best but it is very difficult for young guys to get into the league. I don’t see so many English players playing abroad. The influence of our players who are here is helping us in Belgium. Maybe it can help also for the players of England to go abroad.
“The younger players here go to the Championship [on loan]. Maybe it is better to go to the top league in Germany – that is a really high level. There are also a lot of good teams and you can learn there. It’s much better to play in Germany than to play in the Championship. Already I have heard that English people like to stay in England. Maybe it is something like that, I don’t know for sure.”
He has a point. As with many of the young players coming into England from other European football nations, De Bruyne’s story has been one of getting very early exposure to top-level football. At Bremen, he proudly tells me, he played in six different attacking positions, including centre-forward. He is fluent in four languages. He is young but the breadth of his football apprenticeship is impressive.
What is the great secret to Belgium’s explosion of football talent? De Bruyne says it is hard to identify one factor but that the squad is “a really good group of friends” of which many have played together at junior international level.
“Qualifying for the World Cup will be huge,” he says. “It is already huge now. When I came into the national team three years ago I was on the bench against Bulgaria. We ‘sold’ 10,000 tickets, of which 8,000 were free. The last game we played was in a 50,000-capacity stadium and they sold it out in two minutes. When we go to Croatia next month, 10,000 people will be there to wave us goodbye. It is something you hardly ever see. People go a bit over the top sometimes but it’s better than the alternative.”
Like many of the leading Belgian players, De Bruyne left home when he was young to pursue a professional career and has come a long way in a short time. It has been an experience that should help as he tries to persuade Mourinho of his value. “I had a ‘foster’ family [in Genk] who looked after me but still you are a little bit alone,” he says. “You learn at the age of 14 that you have to manage yourself. And that in life things don’t come for free. I learned that.”
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My other life
“If I am with my friends we can do nothing and have fun. They are my friends from Genk and they mean everything to me. As a footballer you have too much time sometimes. I don’t go out into the city because I am not really interested in that. I stay at home and I can cook.”