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Interview with Mousa Dembélé

03 March 2016

Moussa Dembélé

Belgian football has become a brand and has reached unprecedented national and international fame. No less than 18 Belgian footballers are regularly in action in the English Premier League. The majority of them also play in the Belgian national squad. Among them is Mousa Dembélé whose contract with Tottenham Hotspur has just been extended until 2019. He has achieved over 60 caps with the Red Devils.

Dembélé, who has a Malinese father and a Belgian mother, first moved to London in 2010 to join Fulham FC. Two years later he signed a contract with the north London Club. We recently met up with Mousa in North London.

How old were you when you realised you wanted to be a professional footballer?

To be honest, when I was young I never really had ambitions to become a professional footballer. I was always outside kicking a football, I loved to play. When I was 17, the manager of the first team at Germinal Beerschot invited me to play for his team although it was not my aim to be a professional player.

Can you tell us about your career in The Netherlands?

I played one season for Beerschot. Then other Belgian and Dutch teams showed an interest in me. I used to love watching the Dutch League on TV so a move to The Netherlands seemed the right thing to do. During the first six months at Willem II, I did not play too often but the second part of the season went very well. Next I opted to play for Alkmaar which was managed by Louis Van Gaal. My time in The Netherlands was great as we won the league title. Also, Amsterdam is a great city to live in.

What was your impression of Louis Van Gaal? He has been a rather controversial figure in the UK ever since his appointment as manager of Manchester United.

At that time, for the team we had, he was perfect. There were a lot of young players and they all listened to him. Young players want to learn and are therefore more prepared to accept the manager’s advice, especially someone with so much experience.

What made you decide to move to London?

I told my agent I was ready for a new challenge. I was open for offers from Germany and also England. Fulham was one of the clubs which expressed an interest. I had watched them play and was impressed, they were a good team. That and the fact that London is a nice city and very near to Belgium made me decide to join Fulham. I also regarded it as a possible stepping stone to a bigger English club and that’s exactly what happened.

What were your first impressions of the city?

I was impressed, London is a very big and vibrant place. There is always something to do. I knew my cousin here and that was useful of course.

How does the English Premiership compare with the Belgian and Dutch League?

They are totally different: football in the Premiership is quicker and more physical. But I was mentally and physically prepared so I did well from the start. I am very impressed by the level of football in this league. I think it’s the best in the world.

How would you describe the difference between playing for Tottenham and the Belgian national team?

It is easier to play for Tottenham because as a team we know each other very well. We are together every day. But the national team is getting that way too because the same players have been part of it for a few years now. There have not been too many changes, which makes it easier to play as a team.

Do you feel more proud to play for Belgium?

I wouldn’t put it that way, nationality doesn’t come into it for me. At Tottenham we are always together, we are like family. Because the national team has remained pretty much the same in the last five years, those Belgian players are also like brothers to me. During the World Cup, for instance, we were together for several weeks and that creates an extra bond. You feel closer to some players but everyone is cool and that’s why the vibe is so good, we are strong together.

Being number 1 in the FIFA league rankings is an incredible achievement and obviously creates great expectations. How well do you think the Red Devils will cope with that stress going into the UEFA European Football Championship this summer?

It does create a certain pressure of course, but I think everybody is ready and well prepared to deal with this pressure. It is something we have all wanted and we are confident we will achieve something special in France.

Is it a coincidence that there are so many Belgian top footballers at the moment or is there an obvious reason why this is the case?

I have often been asked this question. It is difficult to explain, I have no answer for this. I think it is coincidence that so many good players have peaked simultaneously.

Did you play with any of the Red Devils when you were growing up?

I attended a Belgian football academy. Radja Nainggolan was in my school and played in the same club. Jan Vertonghen and I also played together.

Do you have regular contact with the other Belgian players in the Premiership?

Not too often because everyone has a busy programme. We are 4 Belgians at Tottenham [the other 3 are Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Nacer Chadli] so that creates a particularly strong bond of course.

Football seems to have truly united Belgium. The support for the Red Devils on a national and international level is enormous. In fact, Belgian football has become a brand. How does that make you feel?

It seems that football has made people feel more proud to be Belgian. It’s amazing to be part of that. There is a big difference between now and say five years ago. We have a lot of supporters and there is a great vibe and atmosphere that has grown over recent years.

Who do you think could be the next big Belgian football star?

That is difficult to predict. I like Origi very much. He is a good player and is still very young. Romelu (Lukaku) too is a top player, people often forget how young he is.

What are your usual pre-match preparations and how do you deal with the pressure of important matches?

I watch my diet. During the week I limit my carbs intake and just before a match I will eat carbs in the form of rice mainly which is superior to pasta.

As for pre-match pressure, I’m usually quite relaxed. On the day of a game you may get a little stressed but in general I’m a pretty calm person.

What has so far been the most memorable event in your career?

There have been a few memorable events. Becoming Dutch champions with Alkmaar was very special. My arrival at Fulham and the first match in the Premiership and next my move to Tottenham are all peak moments in my career. There are many great events but those three were really special to me.

Besides football, moving to London was an important moment in my life and the birth of my son of course.

If you could play with any footballer, past or present, who would it be? Who was your football idol as a kid?

I would like to play with my [18-month-old] son, us two together on the pitch. That would be amazing. I have never really supported a team or had a favourite player. I admired Patrick Kluivert when I was young; people sometimes said my style of play resembled his.

Do you often return to Belgium?

Not too often because we have such an intense programme. It depends on the time of year as well. During the winter and towards the end of the football season we are particularly busy. But I try to go back as often as possible, every month or six weeks. Most of my family live over there.

Your dad is from Mali. Have you spent time there?

When I was younger I spent long spells there. It’s nice to experience a different lifestyle. The last time I was there is about eight years ago. I plan on going back some time soon.

Do you have plans beyond your football career?

I plan to go into business, possibly with my cousin who lives here. I’m not at all the type to become a football coach or a manager.

Credit Stefan D Xavier