In the game of rugby, the No14 jersey is always traditionally worn by a team’s right winger. Similarly, football’s No9 shirt is generally associated with centre-forwards. Having been converted into a right winger at Saint-Etienne, it was during an initial loan spell in Greece that Olympiacos No14 Kevin Mirallas was able to reacquaint himself with his preferred position, that of striker.
"My family and I immediately felt at home here,” the Belgian forward told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “I love the Superleague; it’s a championship where the level of skill is quite high. I feel like I’ve really blossomed here, and representing the best club in Greece has obviously had a big part to play in that. We’re a team that really likes to attack. Our coach puts a huge emphasis on that aspect of our play. We tend to score a lot of goals,” he said.
The statistics do indeed make for impressive reading. Mirallas’ first season in Greece saw the Piraeus-based side crowned champions for the 38th time in their history, finishing ten points ahead of great rivals Panathinaikos and scoring an impressive average of 2.2 goals per game in the process. The 24-year-old front man had an equally successful season, clinching the runner-up spot in the scoring charts with 14 goals.
This campaign has been no less productive for club and player; with six games to play, Olympiacos enjoy a four-point lead over Pana at the top of the table, while Mirallas has already equalled last season’s goal haul of 14, and again occupies second place in the standings.
“I dream about winning league titles and more with my club. But the goal I set myself at the beginning of the year was to finish as the league’s top scorer. I’m just one off the pace at the moment, and given the great players I have around me here, I’m pretty hopeful of ending the season in first place.” The man currently leading the pack is Argentinian Sebastian Leto of Panathinaikos, who host Olympiacos in central Athens today.
“It’s the derby – the most important fixture on the calendar for us, for our fans and for the whole of Greece. It’s a match that generates a lot of emotion. Supporters gear up for it even more than usual,” explained Mirallas.
“It’s this country’s showpiece game. As far as I’m concerned, I try to stay in as much as possible in the week running up to the match, to stay focused, enjoy a bit of peace and quiet, and pay less attention to all the pressure surrounding the match,” he added. This sensible approach contrasts markedly with the slightly more impetuous behaviour of previous years.
Having come through the ranks at home-town club Standard Liege, Mirallas joined French outfit Lille at the tender age of 17. The explosive young Belgian surged to prominence on his Ligue 1 debut for Les Dogues in May 2005, scoring the winning goal against Paris Saint-Germain just three minutes after coming on as a substitute.
He would remain in northern France for four promising years, during which time he scored 12 goals in 95 appearances, and won the first of his 25 caps for Belgium. While there, he rubbed shoulders with another rising star: countryman Eden Hazard. “I took him under my wing, and had a little bit of a hand in his development. Unfortunately, I left before he really began to thrive. I hope to play alongside him again for the national team one day,” said the skilful predator.
Mirallas swapped the red of Lille for the green of Saint-Etienne in 2008. Unhappy about being employed out on the right wing or in a supersub role, he became better known for his comments to the press than for his displays on the pitch. Despite 69 appearances and five goals to show for his efforts, he retains certain regrets about his time with Les Verts.
“I had ups as well as downs there, to be honest, but I just try to remember the good times. Saint-Etienne are one of France’s legendary clubs, as are Lille. They each have a great history, and I’m proud to have played for them both,” he said, repeatedly stressing that he has since matured enormously, to the extent that he now accepts the occasional stint out on the flank without complaint.
“Mirallas’ form has greatly improved, and he’s had an excellent season. He can play on the left or the right, he can switch sides during a game, and he can play in the second striker role. He’s performing at a very high level. He’s obviously someone that I’m keeping an eye on; he’s a young player who’s now back at his best,” declared Belgium coach Georges Leekens recently.
Leekens’ change of tone is good news for the Liege-born attacker, who had incurred the wrath of the former Anderlecht supremo a few months before, after making critical remarks about his international team-mates to the local press.
“Belgium now has a particularly young and talented generation of players at its disposal. We’re just lacking that little bit of experience,” said Mirallas. “We learned a lot during our failed attempts to qualify for the last World Cup and European Championships. I think we’re in with a very good chance of making it to Brazil 2014,” he concluded.