Roar News participated in an interview with Watford centre back and Belgian international Christian Kabasele on the evening of the 9th of February, in association with the KCL Belgian Society and GKTFC. Special thanks to Louis Jacques, Belgian Society treasurer and fellow Roar writer, for putting it into action.
Louis begins the interview with an introduction, following with undoubtedly the most exciting thing to interview Christian about- being part of the 23-man Belgium squad at Euro 2016 in France. “It was just amazing to get the call up, I wasn’t even in the provisional squad to begin with and had made my holiday plans for June. I remember my last game for Genk was the day before I got the call up. It was so unexpected, and I had to change my mentality from being on holiday. I had a suspicion because the Genk goalkeeping coach (Erwin Lemmens) was also the Belgian National Team goalkeeping coach, and so had some inside knowledge. Nevertheless, I didn’t finish the dinner I was eating at the time when I got the news as I was so shocked!”
I follow up on this by asking about his relationship with the Belgium manager at the time, Marc Wilmots, where the common consensus among fans and pundits alike was that he was at fault for wasting a generation of talent in 2014 and 2016- but Christian disagrees. “I had a really good relationship with Wilmots. He gave me my chance, so I owe him a lot. He was always really open with players.”
Belgium, albeit in a tough group, suffered a chastising 2-0 defeat to Italy in their opener, outdone by a savvy side under Antonio Conte. “The defeat against Italy wasn’t the end of the world, and we knew that. Afterwards, we put three really positive performances together; 8 goals, 0 conceded in 3 games at a Euros is very impressive and every team you play is strong.” Confidence certainly seemed to be restored after these wins (3-0 vs Rep. of Ireland, 1-0 vs Sweden, 4-0 vs Hungary (last 16)), and they went into their quarter-final against Wales with confidence, albeit going on to suffer a surprising 3-1 defeat. “With the Wales game, sometimes you just come up against a side who plays out of their skin. They were so well-organised; we couldn’t break them down and they deserved to win on the day”.
Wilmots was subsequently sacked, with Roberto Martínez replacing him. “The biggest thing Martínez has changed is the system, to a 3-4-3 from Wilmots’ 4-3-3. It served us well in the World Cup.” This links to a more cultural question that Louis asks with his Belgian hat on, prompting Christian to confirm that most team talks are done in either English or French, a continual source of interest with one of the few multilingual national teams in Europe.
Bringing the conversation into the contemporary, “for Belgium, it’s definitely time to win something now. I think our squad is more balanced and stronger than in 2018, where we made the semi-final. We have to finally do it. There are a lot of leaders in the squad, so the change of captaincy from Vinny (Kompany) to Eden (Hazard) wasn’t too big. (Jan) Vertonghen is a really good leader as well. “
Early career, Belgium, Watford, and England
Christian completed his transfer to Watford in that summer of 2016 too, joining the relatively large contingent of Belgians playing in the Premier League. We move on too to the listener’s questions. “There’s a WhatsApp group with all of us in. “Whenever we have a game against each other we like to spend 5 to 10 minutes catching up with each other and having a little joke, but it’s difficult with the intense fixture list. I’m especially close with (Timothy) Castagne, who is now at Leicester, as we broke into the national team together and we played together at Genk, and too with (Christian) Benteke from our time at Mechelen.”
With references made to his early career, we move on to talk about a seminal move in his career, going to Ludogorets in Bulgaria in 2011. “Moving to Bulgaria was a difficult decision but I had no other option. Eupen didn’t want to extend my contract. But I thought it could be a good opportunity and it worked out in the end. It was my first time living alone so it was good for me to grow up, and enjoyed my time there, although unfortunately I’m no longer in contact with anyone there.”
Going back even earlier, “I only knew I’d be a professional late on in my career, it was just a leisure activity and something for fun when I was a teen. My youth coach at Eupen was influential.” On his time spent playing domestically, “Eupen was a totally different experience to Genk; Eupen is a very small, family club. Despite being in the German-speaking part of Belgium, most people spoke French, which was good for me, as my Flemish and German is really bad”. Knowing Belgians, we’re sure that’s not true. “I had to get used to a larger mixture of languages at Genk, but French was still mostly spoken.”
His position changes are of much interest, moving from a centre forward, to a winger, to a right back, to a centre back. “I was converted into a centre back during my 2nd spell at Eupen (2012-14)- a defender got injured and the gaffer gave me a go, I did a decent job and managed to stay there. I definitely had doubts about it originally though, I hated my first training session there. Maybe I’ll revert to being a striker at the end of my career!”
His time at Watford is of interest to the audience, and questions about his time there are in abundance. “I managed to escape my initiation song at Watford. But for Belgium I had to do one, and I chose One Dance by Drake as I know the lyrics well. The best one I’ve seen though was Ken Sema’s for Watford, who chose a Michael Jackson- he did some dancing as well as some good singing.”
After talk of the transfer comes talk about the debut. “It was strange that I made my Premier League debut vs Arsenal, the club I supported when I was a kid. However, it’s impossible to still be a supporter of a club once you’re a professional. Loyalty must take over. It happened with Liège and with Arsenal. My idol was Thierry Henry, and I had the number 14 shirt growing up. It was an incredible experience to work with him for the national team (where he was assistant manager between 2016 and 2018). I think he has the potential to go on to be a top manager. It was also my last Premier League game.. I remember the morning of the game where I was told I would be starting. It was a dream come true”.
“The best part of my time so far has been the FA Cup run (2018-19), and definitely the semi-final vs Wolves. It was an incredible comeback and it really showed our strength as a team.” This prompts talk of the character of the squad, and why Javi Gracia was the most successful manager to be with them. “The squad had some unexpected leaders in the squad. (Étienne) Capoue and (Abdoulaye) Doucouré are good leaders- they led with their quality on the ball. Javi Gracia was most successful because he found the perfect balance in the team, and he had a key emphasis on fitness. However, no one manager was the most influential on me personally; every single one has given me something to make me the player I am today. I was surprised with (Walter) Mazzarri at Watford, he was a very typical Italian manager, and I wasn’t expecting that.”
We talk more about the individuals within the Watford squad, and their personalities and skill sets. “(Troy) Deeney never showed us his semi-final goal in the playoffs. But it’s one of the most memorable moments in English football- I saw it at the time in Belgium.” More talk about the marmite figure Troy follows- his seemingly hit-and-hope penalty technique is of special interest. “Deeney never takes penalties in training, but he backs himself against the keeper and that’s the most important thing with penalties. He plays mind games with the keepers. He’s a better penalty taker than Fernandes or Jorginho. The stats show that.”
On the rest of the current batch, “I find it normal playing with technical players because I’m one myself! Ismaïla Sarr and João Pedro are good players in the current squad, but Roberto Pereyra was exceptionally talented. He definitely has that magic that can win a game. (Gerard) Deulofeu showed that too against Wolves in the semi-final. I feel I am one of the most underrated players at the club, but I don’t mind that. Femenía is really underrated too- he’s always the first player in the gym.”
The 2019-20 was a crushing one for Watford, suffering relegation under the blanket of behind-closed-doors football of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the few bright spots was their 3-0 win over Liverpool at Vicarage Road, ending the over-a-year-long unbeaten run when they were Champions-Elect. “The 3-0 win over Liverpool was an incredible atmosphere. As soon as we went into the changing room after full time, we were very quiet- I don’t we understood what we’d just achieved at the time. It was just three more points at the end of the day.”
Within a month, the first coronavirus lockdown in England came into effect, grinding even elite football to a complete halt. “At the beginning of the (first) lockdown, it was really hard to stay motivated. Kiko Femenía did a lot of work to be fair- he put a topless photo of himself on social media, but I’m not that guy, I prefer to do my work in the shadows.”
Despite their efforts, relegation was confirmed on the final day of the season at The Emirates. Talk turns to the psychology of suffering relegation, and how it affects your first season in The Championship. “It was really difficult to pick ourselves back up after it. It was such a shame because the quality in our squad shouldn’t have got relegated. There has been a lot of change over the summer, but the quality is still there. We needed to adapt to the physicality of the Championship initially, but I’m confident we’ll get promoted.”
One of the talking points of this season has been the quirk of veteran goalkeeper Ben Foster’s YouTube channel. “I like Foster’s YouTube channel: It’s funny and it shows a human side to him- he dealt with the Swansea goal very well.” So too has VAR. “The refereeing is much less pedantic in England; the referee allows the game to flow more which I like. But, if I can speak honestly, VAR has been a f***ing disaster. I hate it. It’s removing the joy and the passion out of the game. If referees are still making the same mistakes even with VAR, then we need to make a step backwards.” Hear hear. “I’m very glad that in the Championship we don’t have it.”
Talk of this leads to talk of his special feelings for Hornets fans. “The passion of the fans in England and Belgium is massive, but Watford fans are the best, and I’m not just saying that- I realised it with relegation last season. The fans don’t deserve to be in the Championship. I believe in the power of football. It really is an escape for a lot of people from their daily lives which maybe aren’t going so well.”
The future and fun topics
On whether he would want to return to Belgium to play for his boyhood club Standard Liège, “it’s difficult to say. I have a contract with Watford running until 2024, and I love being there. It is of course becoming increasingly difficult to predict with the coronavirus. At the moment, I have no real ambitions beyond Watford. I’m happy here, I’ve never stayed so long at a club before, and to get 100+ plus appearances for a club feels really special. My family are very happy here too. After football, I’m still not sure what I want to do, but I have a lot of time. I’m trying to follow the badge courses to become a coach with the national team, and I’m trying to finish off the A and B licences in 2022.”
There’s also some talk on his Belgian teammates. “The best player I’ve played against is definitely Eden Hazard; his close control is so good, and you have to be at your best to stop him. It’s a shame that injuries have stopped him at Real Madrid so far, but I’m glad he got the big transfer he deserved. Vertonghen actually does have the most tekkers. It’s true!” The 2014 World Cup postcard campaign for Belgium didn’t lie then. “He also showed it in (2018) World Cup qualifying against Greece with a really good, clean strike to win our most important game. It’s maybe less the case now with (Kevin) de Bruyne!”
We talk too about his life outside football. “I watch a lot of NBA, and I’m and Knicks fan. I’ve watched a few games live but it’s difficult to watch them too often in Europe as they’re on late at night.” A bit too on pets. “Dogs over cats. I have a bichon. My wife had it but now we take care of it together”
We finish off with some advice for GKT players. “It’s all about the timing of the jump with headers” is his response to a sly question on timidity in aerial duels.
His response to the “can we have a friendly with Watford?” question over the summer is worryingly and excitingly promising. It finishes off a very enlightening interview where we can’t thank Christian enough for his time.