In July 2007, after three promising seasons with Gent, young Belgian centre-half Nicolas Lombaerts surprised everyone by rejecting the advances of Europe’s biggest clubs and signing for Zenit St Petersburg.
Lombaerts is as grounded and unassuming as they come, however, and the choice he has made turned out to be a wise one. Seven years on, the 29-year-old Belgian stopper is still with the Bomzhis (Bluebirds), who are riding high at the top of the Russian Premier League.
“When I signed I didn’t think I’d stay in Russia for so long, but I felt happy the moment I set my bags down,” he told FIFA.com. “It’s a wonderful city, the people are very kind and the whole place is right behind Zenit.”
He added: “We’re in the mix for the title every year and we’re also taking part in the European competitions. If you find a place you’re happy, then why leave? I might regret it one day but Zenit is my club now and it will be for the rest of my life. Its supporters will have a place in my heart forever.”
The feeling is mutual. Voted the Russian league’s best foreign player in 2012, Lombaerts is a firm favourite at the Petrovski Stadium, thanks in no small part to the eight titles he has won in the blue and white shirt and his status as club captain.
Though regarded as a star in a country of more than 140 million people, the central defender does not enjoy the same profile back home in Belgium, a nation with a population of barely 10 million. At least that is the way he sees it.
“I sometimes feel a little unappreciated in Belgium,” he explained. “Most people think that the standard of the Russian league isn’t that high, but they obviously haven’t watched any Zenit matches.
“I also get the feeling that it works against me when it comes to the national side,” added Lombaerts, who made just two appearances in the qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. “What matters to me, though, is that my family are proud of what I’m doing.”
Solid on the deck, commanding in the air and blessed with the coolest of heads, Lombaerts is nothing if not committed, as he proved in the early stages of his career, during which he continued with his law studies right up until his move to Zenit.
“I used to dream of being a professional footballer when I was young but I never thought I’d be good enough to make it,” he explained. “That’s why I concentrated more on my studies to begin with, right up to the day when I realised I could make a living from football.”
Staying on the theme, he said: “I’m happy I carried on with my studies. There are other things in life apart from football and you never know what’s going to happen when you’re a sportsman. I can’t say that it’s helped me an awful lot on the pitch, though. Maybe it’s helped me read the game a bit better, which is important when you’re a central defender.”
A big date in Brazil
Though a cornerstone of the Zenit defence, Lombaerts is far from guaranteed a place in the Belgium rearguard, with Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Daniel Van Buyten and Laurent Ciman all providing intense competition.
The Zenit man is more than willing to make a sacrifice to get into the side, however, especially with the world finals coming into view: “I prefer to play in the centre of defence, but if I’m needed on the flank, then I’ll be more than happy to play there. As long as I play, I’m happy, even if it’s as a centre-forward.
“It’s an amazing experience for any player and the opportunity to play in the competition only comes round once every four years. I’ve missed out on two Olympic tournaments because of injury and I’m absolutely determined to make this World Cup.”
As far as Lombaerts is concerned, there is one match at the world finals that stands out above all others: the Group H meeting between Belgium and Russia at the Maracana on 22 June.
“It’s going to be a very special match for me,” said Lombaerts, looking ahead to the tantalising clash. “If there’s one game I want to play in, then it’s that one. The spine of the Russia team is formed by Zenit players and it’s only natural to want to play against your team-mates. I really hope we win because I’ll be getting teased about it for the rest of the year if we don’t.”