In June 2016, Chelsea made their first signing of the Antonio Conte era and yet again it was another Belgian joining the ranks of the Premier League. Despite the considerable sum paid for Michy Batshuayi – believed to be £33 million – the striker is relatively unknown on English shores and only briefly came to prominence in Euro 2016.
No doubt the lure of playing under the industrious Conte, one of the many blue-chip managers now managing in the Premier League, convinced him to join the Londoners. For many Chelsea fans, the Belgian’s arrival may bring back memories of the last Marseille striker to star at the Bridge. Didier Drogba arrived in the summer of 2004 and, along with John Terry and Frank Lampard, ushered in a new era for the west London club. If Batshuayi is half as good as Drogba, Chelsea fans will be more than pleased given their inability to properly replace the Ivorian.
Batshuayi hails from the capital of Belgium, Brussels. Like Belgian team-mate Vincent Kompany, he is of Congolese heritage and his parents too moved to Brussels from the former Belgian colony in the 1980s.
Batshuayi was born in Jette but spent his childhood in Evere and the nearby neighbourhood of Molenbeek. The latter was thrust into the public eye following the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 but the Belgian was quick to underline the fondness of his time in the area: “It was very pleasant. I played football in the parks, with loads of kids. There I knew everyone. The image they’re giving upsets me. For me it’s a nice neighbourhood, somewhere I’d never be afraid to return to.”
Three other Molenbeek kids of his generation have also become professional players: Ilombo “Pelé” Mboyo and Geoffrey Mujangi Bia, both with FC Sion, and Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo of Inverness Caledonian Thistle.
Batshuayi had a journeyman youth career, playing with no less than five clubs including Efj Molenbeek, the now defunct FC Brussels and the capital’s premier club, Anderlecht, but eventually settled at Standard Liège, the biggest club in Wallonia. Les Rouches is a club renowned for their youth development and in recent times have produced such players as including Kevin Mirallas, Axel Witsel, Marouane Fellaini, Eliaquim Mangala and Nacer Chadli.
Batshuayi was given his Standard debut in a 4-1 loss to Gent in February 2011. He would have to wait until later that year to score his first official goal, which turned out to be the decider in a Europa League tie against Copenhagen. His debut season saw him register a respectable six goals from 23 appearances before going on to properly announce himself with 12 goals during the 2012-13 season.
He has often being known as the Belgian Balotelli due to his propensity for garnering headlines. To begin with, he was thrown out of Anderlecht’s academy for disciplinary problems. Then, during his early Standard career, he was twice given lengthy bans, once for elbowing and another for stamping on an opponent. He also hogged the spotlight for being stopped with a replica firearm although he was merely cautioned by the authorities.
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In 2013 he was, along with Standard team-mate Ibrahimi Cissé, thrown out of the Belgian under-21 squad for breaking their code of conduct and missed the prestigious Toulon tournament as a result. Former strike partner Igor de Camargo said: “He’s the best … when he wants. He doesn’t always want it. I always tried to help him with the small stuff. But he didn’t always listen.”
He was linked with Anderlecht numerous times during his time with Les Rouches, something which irritated the Standard faithful. Most notably, in the summer of 2013, his agent José de Medina spoke publicly of his options: “Swansea would be a great challenge, but from a practical point of view Anderlecht would be ideal.”
Looking back on his relationship with the fans, he said: “They were really hard on me, the Standard fans. I didn’t deserve that. They weren’t nice at all. They didn’t support me.”
One man who can profess to understand the Standard-Anderlecht is former captain and now traitor extraordinaire Steven Defour. Given the captain’s armband at only 19, he led Standard Liège to their first league title in 25 years. Standard retained the title the next season, with the player coming to the fore once again. By the time he accepted a new challenge at FC Porto, he was a living legend.
After a mediocre spell in Portugal, he returned to his homeland in 2014. Remarkably it was not in the red and white of Standard that he featured but in the purple and white of arch-rivals Anderlecht. The Standard faithful were incensed by this betrayal and vented their anger during the first Clasico at their home patch of Sclessin in January 2015.
A large tifo showed the decapitated head of Defour and the words “Red or Dead”. Defour was given a second yellow for kicking the ball at the Standard fans, adding to the misery of a 2-0 defeat. The Walloon club was subsequently fined but it goes some way to explaining the extreme anger felt by the fans for a man previously held as a Liégoise icon.
Batshuayi had emphatically put the Anderlecht saga behind him by the time the new season had rolled around. He was 20, the main striker at Sclessin and the hottest property in the Jupiler Pro League, forming a potent partnership with Imoh Ezekiel as Standard finished top of the table at the end of the regular season.
Prior to the play-offs Batshuayi announced that he would be leaving in the summer as Standard flattered to deceive. Despite an opening day victory against Anderlecht they could only look on as their eternal rivals were crowned champions. Batshuayi’s performances were also below-par during the play-offs and he had to be content with individual accolades, finishing second in the Golden Boot race and picking up the Soulier d’Ébène for the best African or player of African origin in the league.
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Despite his dip in form, he had still managed an emphatic 21 goals from 36 games and was included in Marc Wilmots’ 30-man Belgian squad for the 2014 World Cup. He was widely expected to take the place of the injured Christian Benteke but Wilmots felt otherwise and chose the little-known teenager Divock Origi, playing with Lille at the time. Wilmots said: “I found that he (Batshuayi) played in too selfish of a way during the play-offs. He doesn’t think about the team enough.”
He finally left the troubles of his Belgian career behind and signed with Marseille in July 2014 for a meagre £4.5 million. However Standard had included a sell-on clause which was to prove very beneficial in the long-term for the Walloon club.
Marcelo Bielsa, his new coach, played with only one striker and that position was filled by André-Pierre Gignac. Regarding his Francophone compatriot, Gignac said: “I’m up against a top international striker, but for the moment, I’m taking it more as an apprenticeship than direct competition.”
Within a few months of working with the Bielsa was quite impressed by the young Belgian striker: “He’s a complete player.” Even with such praise Batshuayi remained an impact sub and had to bide his time.
Marseille went into the winter break as league leaders, and both strikers were on form, ably assisted by Dimitri Payet. By the end of the season, however, they had to be content with fourth place, which meant Europa League football at the Stade Vélodrome. Batshuayi finished the campaign with nine goals and the impressive statistic of a goal every 100 minutes, the best in Ligue 1.
It was also during his first season in France that he received his first call-up for Les Diables Rouges. He was courted at length by the Congolese national team and was even named on a 107-man list in 2013 by manager Florent Ibengé. However, Batshuayi had already featured heavily for the Belgian under-21 team and scored an impressive seven goals in 13 appearances for Les Diablotins. His Belgian debut came against lowly Cyprus in March 2015. Wilmots, with Belgium coasting to an easy win introduced the Brussels native with less than 15 minutes to play. Within 193 seconds he had opened his account running onto a Radja Nainggolan through-ball.After his
His Belgian debut came against Cyprus in March 2015. Wilmots, with Belgium coasting to an easy win, introduced the Brussels native with less than 15 minutes to play. Within 193 seconds he had opened his account, running onto a Radja Nainggolan through-ball. After his debut the striker reflected on his situation: “Last year I scored a lot of goals in Belgium and I wasn’t called up. This year, I’ve played less, scored less and I’ve been called up.”
The summer of 2015 was one of great upheaval at Marseille as it saw a number of high-profile departures. Star-striker Gignac and orchestrator-in-chief Payet both left along with Bielsa. Former striker Drogba was more than unhappy with the state of the club: “They have sold their best players, whom they let go till the end of their contracts.” The club was also threatened with legal action regarding non-payment of transfer fees, one of those being Batshuayi’s from Standard.
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Marseille got off to a horrid start to the season as they languished perilously close to the relegation zone. Were it not for the efforts of the Belgian striker affairs could have been a great deal worse. He plundered 10 goals in the first 15 games on the way to winning Ligue 1’s October Player of the Month award. He brought his club form to the national side in November, drilling a left-footed drive past Gianluigi Buffon in a comfortable victory over Italy.
Batshuayi’s form stuttered after the New Year but he still managed to score six league goals. It also didn’t deter Marseille from offering him a new contract in January, which tied him to the club until 2020. It was only after the odd arrival of Steven Fletcher that he had another striker to contend with. The Belgian said: “Me and Steven get on very well. I’m pleased to have played 90 minutes alongside him because the day he arrived I understood that he was coming to play with me, not to take my place.”
The only ray of hope was their progression in the Coupe de France, which eventually ended at the hands of the all-conquering, all-powerful Paris Saint-Germain on their way to an unprecedented second consecutive domestic quadruple.
He finished the season with 17 goals from 36 games. Considering the team’s largely abject performances, it was a wonder he scored so many, highlighting his undoubted ability and knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Batshuayi’s last season with Marseille also saw him greatly improve his build-up play. He contributed six assists during the league campaign, and only PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimović and Ángel Di María were involved in more goals.
Having been selected by Wilmots for the Euro 2016 campaign, Batshuayi scored against Hungary but disappointingly only featured in two games. He replaced the below-par Romelu Lukaku in the quarter-final loss to Wales as Belgium desperately looked for an equaliser. During the tournament, he was given special dispensation to complete his medical with Chelsea such was Marseille’s need to comply with the Financial Fair Play regulations in Ligue 1. Standard Liège benefitted substantially from the move receiving approximately £12 million, a hefty sum for the Jupiler Pro League club.
During the tournament, he was given special dispensation to complete his medical with Chelsea, such was Marseille’s need to comply with the Financial Fair Play regulations in Ligue 1. Standard Liège benefitted substantially from the move receiving approximately £12 million, a hefty sum for the Jupiler Pro League club.
The aim now for Michy Batshuayi is surely to usurp Diego Costa from the Chelsea striker’s top spot. It’s more than likely that he’ll play second fiddle before properly taking the reigns in the seasons to come. Chelsea fans are eagerly anticipating how the Belgian duo of Eden Hazard and Batshuayi will link up. Regardless of how his time at Stamford Bridge goes, he has come a long way from the Molenbeek parks.
By Padraic McCafferty