Standard’s golden boy Steven Defour joins bitter rivals Anderlecht
When Steven Defour left Standard Liège in 2011 for pastures new, not many thought he’d be returning to Belgium within three years, let alone join the club which was often the recipient of his sledging when he was at Les Rouches. Yet, the prodigal son of Sclessin has done the unthinkable, joining the current Belgian champions in a €6m (£4.8m) move from FC Porto, representing the second time they have broken the Belgian transfer record in twelve months.
Defour’s best days in Liège coincided with some of Standard’s best recent memories. Appointed captain in only his second year at the club, he led Standard to the league title in 2007-08 (their first championship since 1983), before retaining it the following year. He certainly wasn’t the only competent player in that side – Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel were both breaking through at that time in midfield, while Dieumerci Mbokani and Milan Jovanovic were banging in the goals up front, both of whom went on to join Anderlecht indirectly later on.
He also added the Gouden Schoen/Soulier d’Or in 2007 to his trophy cabinet, a personal accolade recognising the qualities of a 19-year old captain. As the hype grew, so did the injuries. We all know the story of Sir Alex Ferguson sending Defour a letter while on the treatment table, pushing his name into the transfer rumour mills of British tabloids. In truth, this sounding out of Defour did nothing but harm, piling more pressure on him to meet the standards of the former Manchester United manager.
Though he remained an integral part of the first eleven in his remaining years at the club, the trophies did not keep on coming, with Defour guiding Standard to the Belgian Cup in 2011 as his final act. The window of opportunity to join a bigger European side was shortening for him. Having seen Fellaini join Everton in 2008 with relative success at that time, and Witsel join Benfica in the summer of 2011, Defour flew the nest, following his compatriot to Portugal, instead for Porto. Standard too thought that it was the last chance to sell their final key asset, agreeing a €6m fee, much to the chagrin of their supporters.
Defour’s spell in Portugal was blighted by injuries, though even when he was available, he was unable to force his way into the plans of either Vitor Pereira or Paulo Fonseca. He made 65 league appearances over three campaigns, yet never more than 15 starts in any of those seasons, showing his status as a bit-part player. Despite this, Defour almost always remained in the plans of Belgian national team coach, taking a spot on the plane to Brazil, culminating in his needless red card against South Korea in his World Cup debut.
With his international tournament over not long after it began, attentions turned to Defour’s club career. He had it a dead-end at Porto, surplus to requirements. Rumours emerged that he was a target for PSV Eindhoven, but his angling for a move to the Netherlands soon evaporated, with the transfer fee being too much for them.
It’s not the first time Defour has been embroiled in controversy. Eight years prior, Defour looked set to join Ajax from his first professional club, Genk. However, neither side could agree on a fee, causing the move to break down. A disgruntled Defour and his agent, Paul Stefani, attempted to break his contract via the infamous law of 78, meaning that he would unilaterally break the agreement with Genk, provided they pay a fee equal to the wages they would earn between the time of termination and the contact ending. There’s a gentlemen’s agreement in place in Belgium to stop this from happening, with very few players invoking it, unless they deem it necessary. In the end, Defour joined Les Rouches at a much reduced fee compared to the one Ajax offered, creating bad blood with Genk. Now there’s more vitriol closer to home.
So in swoop Anderlecht to pick up Defour, a marquee signing for the Brussels club. Since the departure of midfield general Lucas Biglia to Lazio, Anderlecht have attempted to put square pegs into round holes and have missed his calming presence and creativity. Besnik Hasi has not been happy with his midfield this season – Sacha Kljestan can leave and Luka Milivojevic has so far proved to be an expensive flop. Neither are capable of setting the tempo in midfield nor have they the quality to take Anderlecht into a Champions League campaign.
Youri Tielemans looks to have the right attributes to fill the Biglia role, but at just 17 he can’t be expected to do it all on his own. Similarly Dennis Praet has found the burden of being ‘the next big thing’ too much. Defour’s arrival into midfield could well lift the performances of others, with Tielemans and Praet likely to be the biggest beneficiaries gaining an ideal mentor. Assuming of course, Anderlecht are able to get the Defour of old, not the injury-prone one who was sat on the bench a lot in the last few years.
Unsurprisingly, Anderlecht fans are overwhelmingly in favour of the move, probably more to get one of their longest standing enemies, rather than the quality signing they actually crave. On the flipside, some Standard fans have already called Defour ‘Judas’ and a traitor, the usual words that come to mind when a transfer of this magnitude happens. He’s not the first to make the move across to either club – Mbokani, Jovanovic, even current Standard captain Jelle Van Damme has made the trip across enemy lines.
So why are there scenes of shirts being thrown on the bin or set alight? While once it was Sir Alex’s gushing letter, now it’s an open letter from one disillusioned Rouche. It’s simply because no figure embodied Standard’s renaissance more than Defour and as you might expect from someone so identifiable with Standard, he has plenty of bad blood with the club from the capital. When Axel Witsel’s horror tackle left Marcin Wasilewski with his leg in tatters, Defour then picked up a yellow late on for his own bad challenge and in his post-game comments, while admitting Witsel deserved to see red, felt that the incident may never have taken place had two earlier challenges on him been suitably punished. As the club’s figurehead, he received death threats from some idiots and there were protests at a Belgian training session. He’s also been rather outspoken in the past about les Mauve et Blanc:
“Anderlecht have a big mouth and we knew that, today we showed that they need to shut their mouth.” (to Sporza in 2008)
“It is impossible for me to have gone to Anderlecht. I wouldn’t do that to the Standard fans. I went through too much with this club to then go to Anderlecht.” (after he signed for FC Porto in 2011)
“I miss you (Standard fans) and I hope to return soon to Liège to play for Standard.” (speaking to Liège TV in May 2013)
“I am a Standardman and don’t see why I would have to go to Anderlecht. I grew up at Standard and experienced everything there.” (March 2013 in het Nieuwsblad)
Defour knows only too well just how much disdain his move will cause at Sclessin though.
“I know that I did play on the edge in matches against Anderlecht and it was not an easy decision [to sign for them] but I always had respect for the club,” he said at his unveiling this week.
It remains to be seen whether Defour will have the desired impact for Anderlecht in the centre of midfield or be an expensive flop. He was in the stands for Sporting’s 2-2 draw at Westerlo and was greeted by a banner representing a minority view in Brussels “Once a zero, always a zero | No to Defour.” He will most likely make his debut this weekend against Waasland-Beveren but make a note of 26 October when Standard visit Anderlecht and 25 January when Defour will return to Sclessin. Defour has been handed the No.16 shirt (#8 x 2), which on the face of it doesn’t seem that inflammatory. Except, 16 is also the matricule number of Standard, further stoking the fires.
Could he have gone to Standard? Probably not as even if Duchâtelet was prepared to get his chequebook out, relations between him and ex-Standard president Luciano D’Onofrio are akin to those between Defour and the fans who once worshipped him. We wrote a couple of weeks ago that the real divide in Belgium was between those who support Anderlecht and those who hate them. We weren’t entirely serious then – we are now!