“I have a bit of a chin on me so I decided to let my beard grow,” a smiling Anthony Vanden Borre told FIFA.com when asked about his distinctive facial hair, which contrasts starkly with his bald head.
Though it might have sounded irrelevant, the question had some meaning to it, for that black beard is a remnant from a time when the player, who made his FIFA World Cup™ debut against Korea Republic on Thursday, was at the lowest ebb in his career.
Once a teenage prodigy of Belgian football, having won his first cap at the age of 16 and made his UEFA Champions League debut just a year later, Vanden Borre later became one of its enfants terribles, losing the inner fire that had made him such a bright prospect and turning in more disappointing performances than good ones.
Yet even when his career took a downturn, the national side remained a constant factor in his life. During his stays with Anderlecht, Fiorentina, Genoa, Portsmouth and Genk, Les Diables Rouges (The Red Devils) always came calling.
“Every time I’ve been at a different club, I’ve been called up at least once,” he said. “I’ve got that in me. The national team is something you really need to keep in mind because it’s the ultimate for a player, the biggest thing of all. When you’re at your lowest, just having the chance to aim higher can help you move mountains.”
Lining up on the right side of the Belgium backline in place of Toby Alderweireld on Thursday, Vanden Borre turned in a remarkably composed performance against the spirited South Koreans, who had to win to have any chance of progressing but ultimately went down 1-0.
“It’s a tremendous honour to play in a World Cup match,” said the defender. “I enjoyed it, and we came out of it alright despite being reduced to ten men.”
Vanden Borre and Co were a man down for the whole of the second half following Steven Defour’s dismissal on the stroke of half-time.
On the receiving end of a crunching tackle in the closing stages, the Anderlecht man hobbled off the pitch at the final whistle and was still limping by the time he exited the changing rooms, albeit with a smile on his face following his side’s third straight win at the tournament.
It would have needed more than a mistimed tackle to spoil the return of a player who seemed at one stage of his career to have lost his way. Without a club in the summer of 2012, he turned down offers from some far-flung corners of the globe, saying he hoped to relaunch his stalling career closer to home.
Sao Paulo, the club from the city where he faced the South Koreans, were among the options on the table, as he explained: “At the time I had a lot of offers from different teams, though I never had any official contact with Sao Paulo. They were just one of the alternatives that came up.”
After training on his own for eight months, the unattached Vanden Borre made the sensible decision of returning home, with the aim of keeping his profile high among his compatriots and perhaps even catching the eye of national team coach Marc Wilmots. After convincing Anderlecht, the club where he began his career, to give him a second opportunity in January 2013, he gradually worked his way into contention for a first-team place, eventually holding one down this season.
“It was all a question of going back to basics,” said Vanden Borre. “Making the World Cup was my dream and my objective, and now I’ve achieved it.”