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A different career for Brussels' troubled youth

Andrea Rönsberg, BrusselsApril 14, 2016

Brussels' district of Molenbeek has become known as a hub for islamists. But like other troubled parts of the city, it is also home to talented soccer players who the club in neighboring Anderlecht seeks to develop.

UEFA Youth League - RSC Anderlecht vs. FC Barcelona
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Lefour

Outside Jean Kindermans' office, a bunch of young men dressed in deep-purple tracksuits are jumping over small obstacles, while others are running around them, kicking a ball. "That's our U-19 team who are playing Chelsea in the semi-finals of the European Youth League on Friday," says Kindermans with some pride.

The 51-year old, who once was a soccer pro himself, is now in charge of developing young players at the Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht. Success of any Anderlecht team, be it the under-19-year olds, the under-21s or even the professional team is, in part, a success of Jean Kindermans who helped the player's skills develop from an early age. "A lot of young players are now reaching the first team," he says. "One of the first was Lukaku, who is now playing in England for a big Premier-League team. There are also more and more Anderlecht players in the national youth teams and even in the Belgian national team."

Belgian's Lukaku after scoring a goal against the US in the 2014 World Cup
Lukaku, one of the players who was once a 'purple talent,' scored his first World Cup goal against the US in 2014Image: Reuters

Eight years ago the club started its project - Purple Talents - which entails recruiting young boys from all over Belgium. In many cases, it also means convincing the parents to let their sons be put in one of Anderlecht's host families, so that they can live close to the club. They then embark on a tightly-packed schedule of lessons at school and training sessions on the pitch, from seven in the morning to eight o'clock at night.

Why seek far afield?

While sometimes, the club's scouts find young talent in the most remote corners of Belgium, for the most part, they don't have to look very far. In fact, having scouts check out the empty lots and grassy fields of Anderlecht itself and it's neighboring districts may be just as fruitful.

"Molenbeek is filled with talent," says David Steegen, spokesman for the Anderlecht club, and starts giving examples. "Michy Batshuayi, who played here and now plays for Olympique Marseille, is from Molenbeek, as is his brother, Aaron Leya Iseka, who is one of our big talents and a sub in our first team."

But while the promising young soccer players of Molenbeek live almost within sight of the club's premises in Anderlecht, that doesn't necessarily make it any easier to get them into the talent program. "They don't come out of their neighborhood," says Steegen.

Canal separating Molenbeek from Brussels
A canal separates Molenbeek from central Brussels, but while the canal area has become quite trendy, other parts of Molenbeek have notImage: DW/D. Pundy

A place for those without perspectives

Particularly in recent weeks and months, Molenbeek has become known around the world as a stronghold of jihadism. The list of terrorists and suspected terrorists with connections to Molenbeek is long, and includes Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the November attacks in Paris. Brahim Abdeslam, one of the suicide attackers that killed 130 in the event, lived in Molenbeek. His brother Salah, a suspect in the same attacks, was captured in Molenbeek a few days before the attacks on Brussels - and had been able to hide there for months.

In reality, says Johan Leman, an anthropologist and community worker in the district, there are many different parts to Molenbeek, including one that is middle-class. "But when media refer to this part of Brussels, they mean 'lower Molenbeek,' a part of the neighborhood characterized by a large migrant population and very high population density. And because anybody who has any success in life leaves this part of Molenbeek, it becomes the neighborhood of those without any perspectives."

With youth unemployment in Molenbeek at 40 percent, young people there are an easy target for extremists.

In part, at least, Belgian schools are also to blame, says teacher Jean Francois Lenvain. "I think that unfortunately, they have not provided enough help to many young people with a migrant background in forging their identities," he says. "Most are well-integrated, of course, but a minority gets sort of lost, and drops out of school and has ever fewer chances of succeeding in life. And then, it's easy for people to convince them to embark on a path to radicalization and to Syria."

Turning disadvantaged youths into soccer stars

At the Anderlecht club, Lenvain is in charge of the social department. While the club's talent program originally targeted promising youngsters from distant parts of the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, he says, it then started looking at the French-speaking boys in the Brussels area.

"We were aware that there were many talented young players from the city's difficult neighborhoods and many with a migration background from Sub-Saharan Africa or from Mahgreb states, like Morocco, who were not getting ahead in soccer because they were on a social down-slide and dropping out of school."

Just as a young boy from rural Flanders, a boy from Molenbeek may end up in one of the club's host families. Such was the case with Aaron Leay Iseka, says David Steegen. "He lived in this foster home during the week because his parents didn't have the means to bring him here all the time and put in all this effort needed to make a young player succeed," he says.

UEFA Youth League - RSC Anderlecht vs. FC Barcelona
Aaron Leya Iseka, originally from Molenbeek, went from the talent program to Anderlecht's pro teamImage: picture-alliance/dpa/V. Lefour

At Anderlecht, they are convinced that their sort of program combining a rigid system of education and training is a good way to go, even for those who never get to play in any of Europe's top clubs.

And aside from grooming talents for their own club and national team, they are convinced that they are doing their share to prevent Brussels' troubled youths from becoming radicalized.

"There is a much smaller chance that young people who are in this kind of program, who want to become good soccer players, that they slip and get on this path of radicalization," says Lenvain.

"That's because they already have an identity - and they have a goal."

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