Charles De Ketelaere: From tennis prodigy to €25m football wonderkid

Charles De Ketelaere NxGn
The 19-year-old is already a Belgium international and has been linked with AC Milan after playing a starring role for Club Brugge this season

When Charles De Ketelaere stepped on stage to receive his Promise of the Year prize at the Belgian Sports Awards in mid-December, the video that played behind him did not begin by showcasing his footballing achievements.

Instead, grainy footage of the Club Brugge star playing tennis from around a decade ago was shown as a reminder of just how prodigiously talented a sportsman the 19-year-old really is.

As De Ketelaere followed in the footsteps of Romelu Lukaku, Divock Origi and six-time Grand Slam tennis champion Kim Clijsters in claiming the annual prize, he was given the chance to reflect on the life-changing decision that saw him follow his own footballing dream over a potential career in a solo sport.

"Tennis is much more confrontational when you lose. In football, it is easier to find excuses when things go wrong, but in tennis it's only you," De Ketelaere, who was a Flemish tennis champion at the age of 10, told Het Niewsblad. "You are the only one at fault if you play badly, and I couldn't handle my own mistakes.

"I couldn't stand cheaters, those boys who would scream when the ball was out and it wasn't. Then sometimes I would get mad and hit all the balls away on purpose, or even stop playing. My mum tried to help me with that, because sometimes she was ashamed. I even had a trainer I had to meditate with to calm me down."

Whether for his personal or sporting development, it is clear the De Ketelaere made the right call, with his performances over the past 12 months having seen him emerge as one of the brightest young Belgian prospects in recent years.

Despite having only turned 19 in March, the playmaker is already a veteran of almost 50 first-team appearances for the Blauw-Zwart as well as a senior international having made his debut for Roberto Martinez's side against Switzerland in November.

“Everything I dreamed of as a child is now all coming true,” he said upon receiving his recent award. “My first goals for Club Brugge, where I have been playing for so long and in the city where I live. My debut for the Red Devils too."

De Ketelaere's rapid ascent began in the summer of 2019 when he was chosen as one of seven academy products to join Club Brugge's first-team squad ahead of the new campaign.

He was one of only two, though, that were invited to remain among the senior ranks heading into the new campaign, with De Ketelaere selected to make his debut against lower-league outfit Francs Borains in the Belgian Cup in September 2019.

His second appearance in the first team, however, was a far more high-profile affair.

Having only made the bench on two occasions since his debut, De Ketelaere was a surprise inclusion in Philippe Clement's starting line-up for his side's Champions League clash against Paris Saint-Germain.

Though the Pro League outfit were beaten 5-0 by the French champions, De Ketelaere did not let himself down playing in central midfield, and a fortnight later he was introduced off the bench in the reverse fixture, with his league debut coming in the days that followed.

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By the time the 2019-20 season was prematurely abandoned due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 6'4" tall forward was a regular starter, scoring his first senior goal in what turned out to be the penultimate game of the campaign against Genk.

Despite showing improvements and having signed a new three-year contract in April, De Ketelaere again found himself among the substitutes by the time the current season began.

Yet again, though, it was the Champions League that proved to be the competition to kick-start the youngster's campaign, with his stoppage-time winner against Zenit on the opening night of the group stages beginning a run of 12 starts in Club's last 16 games.

Though that sequence began with him playing off the left of a front three, and included a clash with Borussia Dortmund where he was forced to fill in at left-back and mark Jadon Sancho, it is in his new role as a central striker that he is truly beginning to excel.

A naturally selfless player, De Ketelaere has taken to acting as a 'false nine' as if it were a position he has played all his life. He is tasked with acting as a facilitator for others as well as with scoring goals himself - much like Roberto Firmino at Liverpool - and is thriving.

"His versatility is a huge asset. He is complete, with a mix of physical and technical qualities," legendary Club Brugge midfielder Gert Verheyen told Het Nieuwsblad of De Ketelaere.

"If they play him as the striker for a whole season and he continues to play like this, he will score 15 goals.

"The amount that interested clubs will offer to buy him for will be unprecedented in Belgium. I really think that."

Given his contract situation and the rapid improvements shown since his change in position, the Belgian league leaders believe that their €25 million (£23m/$31m) asking price is fair as interest begins to grow.

AC Milan and Atalanta have both been credited as potential suitors, though they and others will likely hope to see more from De Ketelaere in front of goal before opening their chequebooks.

He has just four senior strikes to his name during the first 18 months of his career, though he has become the first Belgian player to score more than one Champions League goal before their 20th birthday.

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"The fact that the outside world now also knows me and has certain expectations does not deter me," De Ketelaere, who has also spent time studying for a law degree over the past year, told reporters recently.

"I am very critical of myself, so the pressure often comes from myself. I cannot imagine that there will ever come a moment when I think: 'Now I am here, now it cannot be any better'.

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"I regularly look back at my matches. My mum sometimes wants to watch together, but I don't like that. Everything looks good for her, whereas I prefer to look at it a little more critically."

For a man who grew up idolising both Cristiano Ronaldo and Roger Federer, that pursuit of perfection should not come as any real surprise, and it is certainly helping his game go from strength to strength.

Tennis might not have been the game for Charles De Ketelaere, but if his early career is anything to go by, football was the perfect alternative.