When Steven Defour signed for Anderlecht from Porto last week, it should have been the biggest story in Belgian football. After all, the country has grown used to seeing its international players move from its own league to the biggest clubs in Europe, and not the other way round.
However, the news was overshadowed by the announcement from another Belgium international, Daniel Van Buyten, that he had decided to quit football altogether.
Not that the news was a complete shock. At 36, Van Buyten had spoken of retirement before the World Cup, in which he was arguably Belgium’s best and most consistent player. Speaking to the press after Belgium’s exit at the hands of Argentina, he was very emotional, again indicating that this might have been his last game. But his performance had been noticed, and there were rumours of a number of clubs wanting him, with Anderlecht the most probable destination.
On Friday, however, Van Buyten announced his decision. Since then every newspaper, sports programme and social website in the country has paid homage – and FourFourTwo asked former international team-mate Vincent Kompany how he felt about his fellow Red Devil’s retirement.
“Daniel has had an incredible career,” says the Manchester City skipper. “I think he may have won more trophies than anyone in Belgium. Some people begrudged him his success and because of that, I’m even more pleased for him that he did it.”
Having started out in attack, Van Buyten sometimes showed that he was still learning his trade as a defender. There were mistakes, some costly, as he will readily admit. Part of the Belgian press vilified him and portrayed the stopper as a liability who should be kept well away from the national team.
In many ways, he was made a scapegoat for Belgium’s years in the wilderness; for most of his time with the Red Devils, he was the only big player in a team largely deprived of real stars. Like the proverbial tall tree, he came to epitomise that dark period. Looking at the statistics over his international career, however, there is no sign of Belgium losing more games or conceding more goals when he played than when he didn’t.
Van Buyten's last-minute goal at Hampden Park was crucial for 2002 qualification
But in his 84 appearances for Belgium, he also scored 10 goals; some vital, like his header against Scotland in 2001 which arguably sent Belgium through to the 2002 World Cup. In a well-contested second round game against Brazil at that tournament, Van Buyten shackled Ronaldo for most of the 90 minutes, rendering the best striker in the world almost invisible.
It is this sort of performance that Belgium will remember, along with his image as a model professional; always available for press and fans, and always honest about his performance. Even when surpassed by younger, more talented players like Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen, Van Buyten remained loyal, ready and proud to help his country. He played in five of Belgium’s 10 qualifying games for this year’s World Cup, going on to play every minute in Brazil to widespread acclaim.
Players usually stand in line for Lionel Messi’s shirt. It says a lot about Van Buyten’s status that Messi himself made a point of giving it to him after Argentina had eventually ousted Belgium.
"An example for a long time"
Kompany has more praise for his former team-mate: “That is the power of someone like Daniel, who plays such an immense World Cup at 36, who trains so hard every day, and who proves that talent or age don’t really matter, it’s how strong you are in your head. I think he will remain an example for the Red Devils for a very long time. An example for all those young players who are now coming through. Some of them are more talented than any of us. If they have the sort of willpower that Daniel always showed, they can have careers that we can only dream of.”
Van Buyten’s own career was a constant upward curve as he grew in his defensive role. Having started as a professional at Charleroi, he soon moved to Standard Liege where he earned his first caps for Belgium. After just two years, Belgium proved too small for the man who would come to be known as Big Dan. In a move then uncharacteristic for Belgian players, he signed for one of the bigger clubs in Europe, Olympique Marseille.
The centre-back left on a high after Belgium's decent World Cup
Van Buyten played well, often going up to score important goals. The fans loved him. But after a chaotic takeover, he was percieved as old news and subsequently loaned out to Manchester City, then a mid-table Premier League club. In 2004, he signed with Hamburger SV, where he was immediately named captain. The mighty Bayern Munich wanted him after one season, but having given his word to Hamburg, Van Buyten turned them down. Bayern eventually got their man in 2006.
In his eight seasons in Bavaria, Van Buyten was the first name on the team-sheet for several of the great managers he saw come and go. His stature grew and the trophies kept coming. Van Buyten’s mantelpiece bulges with silverware: four Bundesliga winner's medals are joined by further decorations for four DFB-Pokals, one DFB-Ligapokal and two German Supercups. In 2013, he won the Champions League, Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup, completing an unprecedented quintuple with the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal trophies.
Even his worst detractors in Belgium begrudgingly admitted that they might have been wrong after all.
Leaving with grace
For Belgium’s Red Devils, his presence had become unmissable, on the pitch but also as the older, wiser head in an otherwise young and inexperienced group of players. Romelu Lukaku has experienced the same sort of backlash in Belgium that Van Buyten knows so well.
When he scored the goals in Croatia that clinched Belgium’s progress to the World Cup, Van Buyten was first to him, holding the young player’s head in his hands, seemingly saying: “See? You’ve proved them all wrong. Well done!” After Lukaku’s goal against the United States in the second round, Van Buyten made it a mission to be first again, later saying: “My whole body hurt from cramps but I just had to be there first so I sprinted like crazy.”
Kompany is certain Van Buyten’s presence will be missed: “He will certainly leave a gap,” the current captain admits. “He was really close with some of the players and he had a big influence on the dressing room. At the same time, though, every gap has to be filled and this is a chance for someone else to take up that responsibility, to maybe follow in Daniel’s footsteps.
“But he definitely leaves something with us that will always remain. The fact that so many years ago, no one would have predicted this, makes it even more beautiful to me. With the World Cup, he has said goodbye to football in the most beautiful way you can imagine.”