Raf Willems

Simon backed to continue shining

by Stuart Vose

Belgian football expert not surprised by Mignolet's progress.

Belgian football journalist Raf Willems says Simon Mignolet’s success with Sunderland has surprised few back in his homeland.

Willems, a respected Flemish author, has a special interest in Mignolet as he is currently writing Red Devils - a new book on the Belgian stars in the English top flight.

Belgium’s influence on the Barclays Premier League is growing, with stars such as Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini and Romelu Lukaku filling big roles on their respective teams.

Willems (pictured) says Mignolet, who is just 11 appearances short of a century of games for Sunderland, shares that same stature.

Not bad for a man who arrived on Wearside in summer 2010 as an unassuming youngster having helped his one and only professional club win promotion to, and then consolidate in, the Belgian top flight.

In Belgium there is a saying, to be a goalkeeper you have to be a little bit mad. That is not true for Simon Mignolet because he has the brains to be better than the mad goalkeeper

- Belgian football expert Raf Willems

He took to life in England like a duck to water, sharing playing time with Craig Gordon and then beating back competition from Keiren Westwood to ascend to his current position as the club’s number one.

“I think Simon is one of the best goalkeepers in Europe at this time, even though he is very young for a goalkeeper,” said Willems, who was a keen stopper himself having racked up over 600 appearances for a local team.

“His home team, Sint-Truiden, are not a big team, but they are a strong local team with strong routes in the community and a very good tradition.

“They were very, very tough to play against on their home ground but were not a club that had won cups in the past.

“That was the question; could Simon take that one more step higher [when he moved to England]? He did.”

Mignolet recently completed a degree in political science, which he began in Belgium before his move to Sunderland.

And Willems says the keeper’s progress is in part thanks to his intelligent and level-headed nature, which makes him an unflappable figure on the pitch and in the dressing room.

“I think he has a good attitude; I spoke to the man who developed him as a goalkeeper and he said the most important thing for a goalkeeper is his head, his brain,” he said.

“In Belgium there is a saying, to be a goalkeeper you have to be a little bit mad.

“That is not true for Simon Mignolet because he has the brains to be better than the mad goalkeeper, and that is the most important part of his attitude.

“He is made for the Barclays Premier League because of his body and his body language.”

Mignolet has made a splash on the international scene, too, having won a total of 12 caps since making his senior debut against Austria in March 2011.

With their wealth of talent, the Belgian public expect their side to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – and that depth of quality means there’s currently a battle going on between the sticks.

Mignolet is fighting it out with Chelsea’s Thibault Courtois for playing time, with the latter having spent a season and a half on loan at Atletico Madrid.

Willems is one of Belgium’s foremost football experts, having written more than 25 books on the international history of the game.

And he says his country have not seen such a goalkeeping battle for a number of years as Courtois and Mignolet strive to be their country’s number one.

But he believes the Sunderland man has what it takes to secure the number one shirt if he keeps up his current progress.

“Belgium is a country of good goalkeepers, in the past we had Michel Preud’homme, who was the best goalkeeper of the World Cup ’94, and Jean-Marie Pfaff, who was the best in ’86,” he said.

“Then there was a problem for two decades - there was no top quality goalkeeper and now we have two at international level. That’s maybe the problem for Simon.

“That’s wonderful for our country, but maybe not so wonderful for Simon. I think he has to battle and fight for his place, and I think he’s good enough for the first place in the international team.”