Anthony Vanden Borre has never been your average footballer. “I am a simple and honest boy but the football world is hard,” the former Belgium international said last week. “Money is the most important thing and that is a shame. I do not trust many people. That’s certainly the case with journalists and managers. A lot of people judge me without really knowing me.”
Less than two months after he announced his retirement at the age of 29 citing “a lack of motivation”, 30,000 supporters thronged the streets of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s second largest city Lubumbashi last Wednesday to catch a glimpse of TP Mazembe’s new signing. Sporting the club’s black and white striped shirt and standing on the passenger seat of a car with his head poking through the sunroof, Vanden Borre could not wipe the smile off his face as he filmed the chaotic scenes with his smartphone. A fleet of 4×4 vehicles then whisked his entourage to the club’s stadium and then to the nearby estate belonging to Mazembe’s owner and DR Congo presidential challenger Moïse Katumbi, which will be Vanden Borre’s home during his stay in the country.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing for Mazembe,” he said. “It is the land of my mother. This is a choice of the heart. Anyone who knows me, knows what this club means to me. All my friends are excited, including Vincent [Kompany]. He congratulated me by phone.”
It is a measure of Vanden Borre’s standing in his homeland that his surprise comeback was headline news all week in Belgium. The country’s biggest selling newspaper, Het Laatste Nieuws, sent a reporter on the same plane as Vanden Borre to Lubumbashi and was on hand to capture on video the adulation of his new fans.
But to understand their fascination with this complex character’s career, it is necessary to go back to the start. Born in DR Congo to a Belgian father and Congolese mother, Vanden Borre’s family moved to Brussels when he was five when civil war broke out. He joined Anderlecht at the age of eight and was the star of their youth team despite the presence of Kompany, who is almost 18 months older. Vanden Borre originally played as an attacking midfielder blessed with lightning pace when he made his league debut in March 2004 aged 16 years and 187 days. After only five first-team matches, he received his first senior international call-up. “This is the greatest talent I’ve ever seen in my career,” said the former Belgium international Paul van Himst – the former striker known as the “White Pelé” and the only player to have played for the Red Devils at a younger age at the time.
A tempestuous love affair with Paars-wit did not last long. Having earned rave reviews for his performance at right-back during a Champions League defeat to Chelsea a few weeks earlier when he hit the post, before a league game against Zulte Waregem in December 2005, Vanden Borre emerged from the tunnel to show off his new haircut with the initials ‘AVB’ shaved into three sides of his head. The coach, Franky Vercauteren, was not so enamoured with the new look and substituted the 18-year-old after an hour following a poor display. “It really bothered me to hear about [the coach’s criticism] of my haircut,” Vanden Borre complained. “I know I look like a ‘Je-m’en-foutiste’ (‘I don’t care’). You see how mistaken it is. People have a false image of me. I am a human being like others, with a heart like everyone else. It would not have been said I was a sensitive boy, right?”
The incident was the beginning of a slippery slope. Despite becoming a regular for club and country while still a teenager, as Vanden Borre approached his 20th birthday, he already seemed to be at a crossroads as the disciplinary count started to mount up.
“I once interviewed him at a training camp where they had just introduced a psychologist for the players,” remembers HLN journalist Kristof Terreur. “It was quite unusual at the time so I remember asking Vanden Borre what he thought of him. He said: ‘They should just throw him in the water. He’s useless’. His comments made headlines the next day and the manager got annoyed and dropped him from the team. This was a good example of the sort of thing that would always happen. Deep inside he’s a really good guy but sometimes he just doesn’t think about the impact of his words. Or he just doesn’t care.”
After losing his place in the Anderlecht side to the Poland international Marcin Wasilewski (now at Leicester), Vanden Borre embarked on a nomadic spell after moving to Fiorentina for €4m in June 2007. At the time, his mother Christiane had been suffering from a debilitating illness and died in September at the age of 61.
“Anthony wanted to stop football for a while,” his brother Frank said at the time. “He was going to training at Fiorentina because he had to. He wanted to breathe. He was very attached to his mother. A few hours before her death, she called everybody to reassure us that everything was fine with her …”
Within months and having made only two appearances, he was sold to Genoa and appeared to making progress as he become a regular under Gian Piero Gasperini but it proved to be another false start, with Vanden Borre joining cash-strapped Portsmouth on loan at the start of the 2009-10 season. A red card against Blackburn in a 0-0 draw in April as the club headed towards relegation put paid to his hopes of featuring in the FA Cup final the following month although, in truth, he was only ever a marginal figure at Fratton Park.
Still 23, a return to Belgium offered Vanden Borre an escape route. Yet despite agreeing a short term deal with Racing Genk just days after being caught driving 243km per hour in his Audi, complications surrounding the transfer from Genoa meant he was sidelined until January 2011. Inspired by Kevin De Bruyne, Genk went on to win their third Belgian title that season with Vanden Borre also playing a crucial role in defence. But another fallout with the new coach, Mario Been, once more saw him marginalised and he was released at the end of the season.
He lasted three games at Ukrainian team Tavriya Simferopol and again came to close to calling time on his career at the start of 2013 as he struggled to find another club. Anderlecht – in the form of the general manager Herman Van Holsbeeck – proved his salvation.
“The board has decided to help Anthony,” said Van Holsbeeck when Vanden Borre was given a three-year contract. “The club never forgets its former players who have difficulties. We know Anthony well and we hope he seizes this opportunity with both hands.”
“I am the first to admit I have too long relied on my talent,” Vanden Borre said. “My attitude irritated Mario Been, he told me I had missed a good career. It made me think, it was time to turn the knob. At 24, I found a balance in my life. I want to go to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 with the Red Devils.”
The following season, he established himself as a first-choice in Anderlecht’s young side as they retained their title to earn up a call-up for Marc Wilmot’s Belgium squad for Brazil. He was left out of the first two group fixtures but handed a chance against South Korea in São Paulo, only to suffer a fractured calf bone in the closing minutes of the dead rubber to rule him out of the tournament. He returned in time to score twice against Arsenal in a thrilling 3-3 comeback draw in the Champions League but that was to be as good as it got.
Demoted to Anderlecht’s B team by new coach Besnik Hasi, an outburst to the Belgian newspapers proved to be the beginning of the end. “He wanted me to throw in the garbage. He did everything to get me out of the team,” Vanden Borre said. “Everyone in the changing room at Anderlecht are janetten [pussies]. But I have a three-year contract. They cannot force me to leave – even with a gun to my head.”
“He’s always been a rebel,” comments Terreur. “I think injuries at the wrong moment have affected him badly but there have also been some weird career choices. He doesn’t take football too seriously. A few times he has gone to stand on the ball, which people in the crowd enjoy but maybe not the coaches.
“He’s always missed something – someone who can guide him. He trusted the wrong people and that why things have gone wrong, although has played at the World Cup which was a career high for him. But after that, it all went wrong again.”
Frozen out of the first team picture, Vanden Borre joined Montpellier last July and performed well until a change of management hastened his return to Brussels. A week later he announced his intention to retire, stating he was “sick of European football”, only to reverse that decision by moving to DR Congo. “I have no regrets. I love adventure. Sometimes that turned out well, sometimes not,” he said.
The move to join the five-times African champions, Mazembe, was orchestrated by Jean-François Lenvain, a trained teacher who has acted as a mentor to Anderlecht’s younger players including Romelu Lukaku and rising star Youri Tielemans, and is often referred to by Vanden Borre as his emmerdeur [shit-stirrer].
“In my day, [Lenvain] was not there to help me,” he said. “It is perhaps my fault this has happened. I did not like school and was a tough guy. But I have learned you must work hard and listen to your coaches. Have respect for everyone. I had a lot of talent but maybe I did not work hard enough.”
This may not be the end of the story. Roberto Martínez, the Belgium manager, has indicated the door to the national team may be still open for Axel Witsel after his multimillion pound move to China and Vanden Borre has not given up hope of adding to his 28 caps.
“I’m not going there to sleep, I want to win prizes,” he said. “If Witsel can do in China, then I can do it in Congo. Mazembe is larger than some Chinese clubs. I have left money behind. Which is more important: money or the heart?
“I know where I come from and I have my own values. I am going to Congo to be close to the people. It is another way of life that suits me.”
The Guardian Sport