Thomas Meunier: Belgium's wing-back as happy in a gallery as playing

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Thomas Meunier: Belgium's wing-back as happy in a gallery as playing

World Cup 2018 World Cup 2018: Guardian Experts' Network Thomas Meunier: Belgium's wing-back as happy in a gallery as playing

The attack-minded right-back considered a career as an artist before football took over, and hates aggression from fans

Thomas Meunier
Thomas Meunier idolised Brazilians like Ronaldo and Ronaldinho as a boy and grew up supporting Manchester United. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

This article is part of the Guardian’s 2018 World Cup Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who have quali fied for Russia. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 14 June.

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Les Montres Molles in French; The Persistence of Memory in English. It is quite unusual to find a famous painting on the screen of a footballer’s phone, but when Thomas Meunier pushed his home button last year one of Salvador Dalí’s most recognisable works flashed up. “It’s my favourite”, he said. “It is the notion of time. It is surreal and stands out from the ordinary. Maybe that’s the reason it touches me.”

The Paris Saint-German right-back’s passion for art stretches to his youth. He grew up in Sainte-Ode, a small village in the Ardennes, where his grandmother â€" a teacher â€" schooled him in drawing and painting. “There was even a period when I said that I would become a cartoon artist,” Me unier said. “I was huge fan of Bugs Bunny.”

It could not quite sway him from another, deeper love, though. Football was the object of his affection from the age of five, when he walked into the family kitchen and asked his parents if he would join the local club. “When I had a ball at my feet, I was happy,” he remembered. At home, he practised his skills to the extent that any family member available â€" his grandmother if necessary â€" was pressed into goalkeeping duties. As a teenager, he watched YouTube videos of his heroes and spent hours trying to replicate their actions. The Brazilians were the ones he loved â€" Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho â€" as well as David Beckham and Paul Scholes. “A little bit of Cantona too, although I never saw him playing,” said Meunier, who supported Manchester United as a boy.

Thomas Meunier

Local scouts cottoned on to his talent. He was too good for Sainte-Ode and, at 10, moved to Givry. Standard Lièg e were also monitoring him and, in 2004, offered him the chance to join their youth squad. He would not stay long, though; being released two years later was, he reflected later, the kind of experience that can make or break a career. “Some psychological challenges in my youth, like the divorce of my parents, have shaped my character,” he said. “If you are, just like me at that age, purely focused on football and your club tell you that you’re not good enough it can be a shock.”

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He took a step backwards to Virton, a third division club closer to home. A first-team debut arrived in 2009, when he was 18, but could not support himself from football alone. He worked as a postman and, in 2010, became a warehouse worker at the car glass delivery factory Autover. At that point he earned €1,250 a month, but soon his income would skyrocket. The following year he joined Clu b Brugge for €200,000, and life turned upside down.

Meunier joined Brugge as a midfielder but was transformed into an attack-minded right-back. That development accelerated his journey to the top: his performances earned a place in the Belgium squad for Euro 2016 â€" he had previously played a few games for the under-15s and under-21s â€" and during the tournament he sealed a surprise move to PSG.

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Thomas Meunier vies with Barcelona’s Luis Suárez in the Champions League in 2017. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

“When I arrived, not many team-mates knew me,” he recalled of his early days in Paris. “Thanks to the Euros there were maybe tw o players who remembered my name. Thiago Motta had played against Belgium with Italy. I wasn’t in the starting XI, but after the game I’d swapped shirts with him. He didn’t even remember.”

Playing in France’s capital gave him the chance to meet one of the idols he would try to copy during those years in the back garden. “Ronaldinho visited the club last season, I even have a picture with him,” he said. “Maybe that was one of the best days of my career. Sometimes I kiss my hands: that my job allows me to meet the people who made me fall in love with this game. Five years after Virton I was suddenly playing against Messi, Piqué and Iniesta â€" players I used to know from TV.”

Now an established figure, he has plenty to say about the negativity, aggression and violence football sometimes inspires â€" both in stadiums and on social media. “It’s a catastrophe”, he said last year. “The pessimism, the criticism, the hate they spout from the stands too. I can’t understand it.”

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He received threats from PSG fans after “liking” a picture of a tifo from Marseille fans before they played Salzburg in the Europa League semi-final. It had been an innocent nod of approval from an art fan rather than anything ill-intended.

Nonetheless, Meunier is revelling in la vie Parisienne, particularly the museums. “It was a teacher who also opened my eyes in college,” he said. “I’m looking for emotions and sensations in a piece of art.”

And when he really likes it, the image even ends up on the screen of his phone. They might not be easy to find, but arty right-backs really do exist.

Kristof Terreur writes for HLN.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Source: Google News Belgium | Netizen 24 Belgium

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