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CHARLES de Ketelaere has been billed as the heir to Kevin de Bruyne's throne by Belgium football fans for the past few seasons.
It was hugely symbolic then, that it was De Bruyne who provided the assist for De Ketelaere's first goal for Belgium last Sunday in the Nations League third place play-off against Italy.
The Manchester City playmaker sent a majestic trademark through ball to the 20-year-old who placed his shot between Gianluigi Donnarumma's legs.
It was only a consolation as the Red Devils lost 2-1 but, as De Ketelaere and De Bruyne embraced, it felt like a coming-of-age moment for a player expected to be Belgium's next superstar.
'King Charles', as he is already known in his homeland, will go head-to-head with De Bruyne on Tuesday night when Club Bruges entertain City in Group A, but why is he rated so highly - and how good could he be?
De Ketelaere burst onto the Belgian football scene in style just two years ago, making his first two appearances - bar a Belgian Cup match - for his boyhood club in Champions League losses to Paris St-Germain.
'Prince Charles', as he was called then, was quickly upgraded to 'King' as he scored a dramatic injury-time winner at Zenit St Petersburg a year later - a goal which saw his name written in graffiti on a wall near his home and just 500m from Bruges' Jan Breydel stadium.
The new hero of Belgian football is a local boy, with posters of former Club Bruges players on the walls of his bedroom.
He joined their academy at seven, used to be a ball boy, and chose football over tennis even though he had success on the court in winning regional youth tournaments.
Initially, De Ketelaere wasn't considered a top talent, mainly because numerous growth spurts led to injury problems and prevented him from getting any continuity.
Since he reached 6ft 3in though, the progress has been meteoric and, by the age of 18, he was pitting his wits - and coming out on top - against some of Europe's best players.
By 2020, he was becoming the darling of the entire country.
Elegant, inventive and supremely technically skilled for such a tall player, De Ketelaere caught fans' imagination as he became known for scoring dramatic goals.
He netted twice against Zenit last season and almost did it again when they needed to beat Lazio away on the last matchday in order to qualify for the Champions League last 16 - only to see his phenomenal strike from a tight angle hit the bar of Pepe Reina's goal.
Shortly afterwards, he became the fifth footballer in history to win Belgium's 'Talent of the Year' award - established in 1998 for promising young sportspeople and following in the footsteps of Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku, Liverpool's Divock Origi and four-time tennis grand-slam winner Kim Clijsters.
Success hasn't changed his personality though.
The prodigy still lives with his mother and wants to lead a normal life, shy enough to have stopped going to the local bakery because he was asked to take selfies there.
Interests include watching darts and studying law - De Ketelaere had to quit university when his career became too demanding.
"Charles doesn't want to be famous - he is a simple guy. He is never nervous, makes things look easy on the pitch, and could even look too phlegmatic at times," De Krant van West-Vlaanderen journalist Frans Buyse tells BBC Sport.
With 98 professional appearances, two Belgian top-flight titles and a Super Cup already under his belt, his impact this season is no surprise to those who have been following his career closely, despite playing out of position as a central striker.
He has already scored four goals and provided three assists in 11 league games this campaign - and played a starring role in the 1-1 Champions League draw with PSG last month, with Lionel Messi making his European debut for the visitors.
Buyse added: "Charles' best position is number 10, but experienced star Hans Vanaken plays there, so he had been moved around, used in attack, on the wing and even at left-back.
"Lately, he started to enjoy life in the penalty area, but his biggest strength is to have a lot of the ball in central midfield.
"De Ketelaere's style is reminiscent of De Bruyne. He is intelligent, and possesses great vision and a superb passing range. His dribbling is similar to De Bruyne's too. Eventually, he should take his place for Belgium,"
Veteran Club Bruges supporter Henk Vanhee told BBC Sport: "We are extremely proud of Charles. For years we have been waiting for the club to produce a talent like De Bruyne, Lukaku or Eden Hazard - and we are certain that De Ketelaere has the quality to deliver. His technical qualities are stunning, his clever touches accelerate the play. He is going to reach the top."
Belgian journalist Sven Claes added: "De Bruyne and De Ketelaere clearly have a great connection and were looking for each other against Italy. It seemed as if De Bruyne was taking on a father role. We will have a lot of fun with them. That goal was just the beginning. Class meets class,"
And yet, in the Champions League on Tuesday they will be rivals.
Club Bruges' current campaign started with the draw against PSG as De Ketelaere outshone Messi and Kylian Mbappe and was the best player on the pitch. He then provided an assist and was involved in another goal when the Belgian champions sensationally won 2-1 at Leipzig.
All that means they are ahead of Pep Guardiola's side before facing them twice. 'King Charles' is about to welcome De Bruyne to his castle on Tuesday - and he is more than capable of causing problems for the Premier League champions.
- Oct. 19, 2021 @ 09:16 GMT |
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