The only newcomer in Roberto Martinez’s 30-man squad for the Nations League diptych against Wales and the Netherlands: Zeno Debast. Pay to work for the only 18-year-old defender of Anderlecht, whose progress seems unstoppable. Whether he can therefore immediately celebrate his international debut is another matter. On the contrary: maybe it wouldn’t even be a bad idea to postpone that first cap a little longer.
What is good, however, comes quickly. People know this in Lotto Park, where the teenagers from Neerpede are allowed to show their tricks to the main force more and more earlier than anyone else. Almost eight months ago it was Debast’s turn, who a year earlier already stood his ground against Dieumerci Mbokani as a little boy in the play-offs. For about five weeks, the youthful lad once again made an excellent impression, until a nasty foot injury threw a spanner in the works. RSCA’s board, which has since broken his contract several times, had already seen more than enough. Last summer, Peter Verbeke did not even look for an experienced competitor to challenge Debast. The top talent had to and would finally break through.
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Confidence that he hasn’t betrayed in the least so far. Like Vincent Kompany, Felice Mazzu did not hesitate for a second to draw his card after an excellent preparation. What’s more: Debast invariably appears to be one of the first names on the Brussels competition magazine. In the redundant return match against Paide he remained sidelined, Sunday against KV Kortrijk – when the sheep had long been on dry land – Mazzu dared to replace him for the first time. In his place Hannes Delcroix, until then always title holder in the competition, came between the lines. Earlier, the left leg in the Conference League against Silkeborg and FCSB already cleared way for Jan Vertonghen. He and not Wesley Hoedt are therefore in danger of becoming the victim of the last-minute stunt transfer. A bizarre twist of fate.
Rewind to November 11, 2020. In the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, Martinez hastily moves Delcroix, after a season on hire at RKC at that time good for barely a handful of appearances at Anderlecht, promptly on from de Jonge to the Red Devils. The national coach is therefore desperately looking for young left-footed defenders for his outdated defense: he gave Elias Cobbaut a chance the year before. In the leisurely practice match against Switzerland, without many anciens, Delcroix can immediately participate for half an hour. Vertonghen relieves the rushing promise, a replacement that still seems to symbolize a future changing of the guard. No one could predict then that the record international will also block his way at club level today.
Not that Delcroix is still close to the national team. Injuries in particular took their toll. For the past year and a half, the now 23-year-old left leg has been constantly on the bum and hardly came into action. In the pecking order with the Red Devils, Arthur Theate, one year younger, was therefore again leapfrogging. Although he simply returned to his regular place at RSCA in the past play-offs, and continued that line in the current campaign until last weekend, there is no longer any question of Delcroix there. Today, all eyes are on Theate to succeed Vertonghen one day. Now that he has pushed his new teammate into the background until then even in the Lotto Park, it seems for Delcroix that it will remain with that one international match for the time being.
So wait and see before praising Debast to heaven. His qualities are undeniable, after 21 duels as a professional it is still too early to claim victory. Hopefully the youngster will be spared from further injuries. Not only Delcroix, but also his peer Zinho Vanheusden – also baptized the new Kompany not so long ago – can speak of this. Who dares to say with certainty that Debast is doing better? Caution is still advised. Incidentally, Vanheusden and Delcroix are just two of the many one-hit wonders under Martinez. Even if Debast gets minutes – not impossible given the doubts about Dedryck Boyata and Jason Denayer, even though Wout Faes is higher in the drawer – that offers no guarantees for the future.
With Toby Alderweireld, Leander Dendoncker and even Brandon Mechele in the mix, the road to Qatar still seems long. Still, Debast can hope to be in the spotlight soon. In the past, Martinez often dared to throw fresh blood in his selection right away. With his 18 years and 332 days, Debast will in that case become the fourth youngest debutant since the Spaniard made his appearance as national coach, after Yari Verschaeren, Jérémy Doku and Youri Tielemans – all scions of Neerpede. The latter has since shot up like a rocket, while Verschaeren got stuck in his development and Doku spent more time in the infirmary than on the field. Well begun is half done is not always true.
Many young people who Martinez tried to launch, such as Sebastiaan Bornauw, for example, were unable to live up to the high expectations. At least for the time being, because of course they still have time to make their mark. Illustrious predecessors such as Anthony Vanden Borre or Zakaria Bakkali, however, could not continue their sensational teenage years, although there are numerous success stories with, among others, Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard. In which list will Debast, soon possibly the 17th youngest Red Devil in post-war history, ever end up? Of course everyone is keeping their fingers crossed for the latter scenario, but isn’t Martinez going a little too fast by letting him skip the intermediate step at the U21?
In any case, it seems too early for a ticket to Qatar. Today, Belgium still has better options available in the back center, so there is no need to hurry. Fortunately, because his young body can do without that extra load. Given the limited exchange options, Debast will have to work hard in the coming months. Anderlecht are counting on him to achieve the sporting objectives on three fronts, and to bring in a lot of money afterwards. Preferably not next summer. Participation in the World Cup would not only boost its market value significantly, but also arouse the interest of foreign clubs. Together with the risk of injuries, there are enough reasons to keep the defender in the waiting room for a while. The rest will follow later, a scenario that benefits all parties. Just ask Delcroix.
POLL: Debast could gain better experience at the Young Devils