In little under a year, Nacer Chadli has transformed himself from a little-known attacking midfielder into a headliner for Twente in the UEFA Champions League and a Belgium regular. On the eve of Les Diables Rouges’ vital UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier against Turkey in Brussels, FIFA.com spoke to the 21-year-old about his sudden emergence.
Just as many players have before him, Chadli has discovered that the line between failure and success in football can often be a thin one. “I nearly packed it all in,” he said in reference to a not-so-distant past that looked less than promising. Released by Standard Liege as a teenager five years ago, he tried his luck in the Netherlands with Maastricht before spending three seasons with second-division side AGOVV Apeldoorn. Then came his big break with Twente, a golden opportunity he has seized with both hands.
Since making that move to Enschede last summer, the player of Moroccan descent has barely been able to take stock of the rapid turnaround in his fortunes. “I haven’t had the time because the games have been coming thick and fast, almost one every three days,” he explained. “I’ll have a chance to sit back and take it all in when the holidays come.”
Chadli made his debut for his country of birth in a friendly against Finland in February, having run out for Morocco in a non-competitive match last November. Since pledging his allegiance to Belgium, he has made further appearances against Austria and Azerbaijan, impressing national coach Georges Leekens to such an extent that he has relegated the highly rated Eden Hazard to the bench.
In addition to his international breakthrough, Chadli has also been impressing on the club scene, scoring seven goals in the Eredivisie and three in the Champions League, and helping Twente to victory in the Dutch Cup and second place in the league.
In my first match I was up against Maicon, who I’d been watching on TV at the World Cup. He’d just been voted the best defender in the world, and there I was playing against him.
Now flourishing under former Belgium international Michel Preud’homme, he puts his recent unexpected success down to a step up in class and the support of his famous compatriot. “I’ve become a different player this season,” he said. “I’ve become a lot stronger than I used to be and I’ve improved in every sense, both physically and tactically.
"At Twente I’ve been getting the advice I need to find my place on the pitch. It’s a different type of football to the one I played in the second division and it was totally new to me. Fortunately the coach has really helped me develop. He’s given me a chance and he’s got me working on my defensive game.”
Also crucial to his career progression was the three years he spent with Apeldoorn, where his 17-goal haul in the 2009/10 season alerted Twente, who ended that campaign as Dutch champions, to his potential.
“It was amazing to join a team that had just won the championship, and to play in the Champions League was a dream come true,” he said, looking back on his early days with Twente. “In my first match I was up against Maicon, who I’d been watching on TV at the World Cup. He’d just been voted the best defender in the world, and there I was playing against him.”
Chadli’s first season in the Eredivisie ended in disappointment when Twente lost a title decider at Ajax on the final day. Having now put that setback behind him, he is focusing his thoughts on the EURO 2012 qualifying showdown with Group A rivals Turkey, one the Belgians need to win if they are to stay firmly in the hunt for a place at the finals in Poland and Ukraine: “I felt a bit drained after losing the title, but the break has done me a power of good. I’m raring to go again, and mentally and physically I feel ready.”
And while Belgium fans might be feeling a little nervous about tomorrow's high-stakes encounter, they will be relieved to hear that the upwardly mobile Chadli is relishing the prospect. “I love the pressure that comes with big games,” he stated.
Should his dramatic rise continue, the Standard Liege discard can expect many more big games in the future.