What happened to Steven Defour and Standard Liege's golden generation?
It would take a very hard heart indeed to not have sympathy for Steven Defour after his weekend. The Belgium midfielder has always been a forthright figure, to say the very least. If you skimmed a news summary noting that he had been sent off for kicking the ball into the crowd on his return to former club Standard Liege with his current team (and Standard's archrivals) Anderlecht, you might have silently nodded in recognition to yourself.
There was a pretty major footnote, though. Defour was greeted back to the Stade Maurice Dufrasne with an enormous banner, featuring a knifeman brandishing the player's severed head annotated with the phrase "Red Or Dead," in reference to Standard's colours. So one could perhaps understand him being a little on edge.
Defour's father, Jacques, had told Het Nieuwsblad before the match that he was expecting the experience to be "even worse than his return to Genk" -- the club the midfielder left in bitter circumstances as an 18-year-old to sign with Standard in the first place -- but even he can't have imagined anything like this.
Steven Martens, the CEO of the players' union, spoke for many when he said on Monday afternoon "a line has been crossed." Responsibility has been claimed by the Ultras Inferno group, who intend to defend their position in a Friday meeting with the city's long-serving mayor, Willy Demeyer.
Defour, for his part, claims he was hacking the ball out to allow an injured Standard player to receive treatment and didn't hear referee Alexandre Boucaut's whistle, what with his being whistled to the skies every time he went near the ball. Boucaut was unconvinced. "He was standing five metres away from me," said the official after the game. Either way, one wonders what was going through Defour's head as he left the field.
One thought might have been to ask himself what exactly he was doing there. He will be 27 in April and if his career had gone anywhere near as he had hoped, he wouldn't be plying his trade in Belgium right now. Lauded as the ultimate midfield all-rounder from his early days at Standard, he could tackle and had a fine range of passing. Defour was made team captain at 19 and seemed set for a swift rise to the top. Manchester United were heavily linked with him over the space of a few seasons, while former manager Sir Alex Ferguson seemed to confirm his interest when he wrote him a letter of sympathy after an injury that was leaked online.
Held up by a series of niggling injuries, it was after Defour finally left Belgium for Porto in 2011 in what looked like another bargain for the Portuguese champs at 6 million euros, that his possible limitations began to surface. There was no easy route into the first XI, with the then-untouchable Joao Moutinho barring his way at first. Of greater concern, the club's former captain, Lucho Gonzalez, swept ahead of him in the pecking order after returning from Marseille, despite being Defour's senior by seven years.
The growing sense at the Dragao was that Defour was indeed an all-rounder -- middling at everything, and outstanding at nothing. How different he had looked at the beginning. The midfield that bound together the Standard side that captured the 2008 Belgian league title -- the club's first in 25 years -- was really something. Besides "Captain Steven," as he was known, were two notable youth products. There was Marouane Fellaini, who actually started out in Anderlecht's youth ranks as a 7-year-old before continuing his education with Standard's academy, and local boy Axel Witsel.
That side, with that midfield trio at its heart as well as other notables including Dieumerci Mbokani and now-Bayern Munich defender Dante, went on to give Liverpool an almighty scare in the 2008-09 Champions League qualifying tie. Dirk Kuyt's goal two minutes from the end of extra-time was necessary to deliver Rafa Benitez's side safely to the group stage.
A 21-year-old Fellaini was the first to jump ship, returning to Merseyside to join Everton less than a week after that Champions League heartbreak. Even allowing for the continuing debate over whether he's good enough for United, there is little reason to argue that Fellaini has been anything less than a roaring success in England. He's always appeared a touch unrefined, a blended scotch to Defour's cognac, but he has made the most of what he has. Under David Moyes at Everton, he showed the adaptability to work as a second striker as well as the box-to-box beast that he had been sold as, of course. He has even begun to show signs that he could be of a similar usefulness to Louis van Gaal, at least in the short term.
With many in football disappointed by his choice to move to the Russian Premier League in 2012, you might be forgiven for thinking the third of that vaunted trio, Axel Witsel, had dropped off the edge of the earth. In fact, the 26-year-old is probably the most successful of the lot. Moving to Portugal in the same summer as Defour, his fortunes diverged sharply from those of his former skipper. He was such a smash hit in his year at Benfica that when Zenit Saint Petersburg came calling, the Lisbon club were able to successfully claim the full 40 million euros in Witsel's release clause.
Like Fellaini, Witsel had the smarts to evolve. Infamous for his horror challenge on Marcin Wasilewski in 2009 that broke the then-Anderlecht defender's leg, he has morphed dramatically from that callow and impetuous winger. As a deep-lying midfielder stationed next to Javi Garcia at Benfica he pulled all the strings, as he later came to do for Belgium as arguably Marc Wilmots' key man. With the whole game in front of him, he felt less compelled to dive into crazy challenges.
In contrast, learning is perhaps not Defour's strong point. He has gone from one controversy to the next since coming home: from the frosty reception afforded to him by Anderlecht fans to the obscene gesture he made at Lierse supporters in September. Even when leaving the field on Sunday, he made a provocative point of applauding the travelling Anderlecht fans.
Let's just hope Defour does ride his current difficulties out. His career may not be where the watching world may have expected it to be, but there is plenty of untapped potential left in the tank.
Andy Brassell is a freelance European football writer and broadcaster for the BBC, The Independent, ESPN, The Blizzard, Four Four Two, Talksport and others.