MANCHESTER, England – Dressed in a full black tracksuit, wearing sneakers with no socks and a leopard-print scarf wrapped around his neck, Marouane Fellaini’s eccentric personality is clear for all to see.
His cheeky smile and infectious laughter does the rest.
The 28-year-old Manchester United midfielder greets me with a warm embrace as we sit down in the suburbs of Manchester to chat about the season so far and what lies ahead for himself, United and with the Belgian national team. He’s relaxed, calm and precise.
Born in Brussels to Moroccan parents, Fellaini is part of Belgian’s golden generation of players who have seen the tiny country rise to the top of the FIFA world rankings.
His career is soaring to new heights on the international stage after scoring five goals in his last three games for Diables Rouges, as Belgian’s national team is known, as they prepare to be among the favorites to win the European Championships in France next summer.
As for his club side, Man United, Fellaini believes they can push for the title this season as a steady start sees them well placed in the top four heading into the busy festive period. Despite racking up plenty of wins, United have also racked up plenty of critics due to a lack of goals and many questioning their style of play. Fellaini has a message for the doubters.
“Yes, of course [we can win the title]. At the moment we are in the top four, we are there. It is a tough month but we have to continue like this,” Fellaini said. “We know as Manchester United the expectation from us is high. Now we are focused, we know what we are doing. So, we will see but we are there.”
Before and after their disappointing UEFA Champions League exit at the group stage, Louis van Gaal’s coaching philosophy and the slow-paced possession style he’s implemented at United has been blamed for the lack of cutting edge in United’s attack. Used both in midfield and up front by van Gaal, Fellaini believes the goals will come and the squad is fully behind their manager.
“We trust him. He is the manager, it is his philosophy and we have to continue like that,” Fellaini said. “I am sure the goals will come and the chances as well.”
Fellaini’s start to the current campaign has been a frustrating one with suspension and injury limiting his minutes. His brow furrows slightly as he talks about the opening few months of the season. He’s determined to show his worth to the Red Devils faithful.
“I didn’t start the season because I was banned three games. After that I would just come in 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes – that’s football,” Fellaini said. “The manager decides but I am sure my time will come and I will show myself. … I can help [score the goals] and I can play as well. Last season I scored goals and I did well. I’m sure my time will come and I will play.”
Off the soccer pitch, these times are unsettled. Fellaini and his fellow Belgians know this more than most as his hometown of Brussels has been at the center of police raids following the Paris attacks of November 13. Several of the terrorists involved are said to be living in the Molenbeek area of the Belgian capital, just four miles from Fellaini’s home neighborhood of Etterbeek.
Fellaini, along with over 25 percent of the citizens of Brussels, is a Muslim. He had one simple message for the people of Belgium, no matter their race, religion or beliefs: peace.
“Unfortunately that is the world at the moment,” Fellaini said. “For me, the first thing is for peace. That is the first thing. Everyone has to be happy, you know? And enjoy their life and stop thinking about bad things because we live just once.”
With many question marks surrounding Brussels and Belgium – Belgium and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany recently spoke about the social issues around segregation across his and Fellaini’s hometown due to “politicians failing” the people – Fellaini hopes that the game he loves can help bring people together.
In Belgium in the past, as Kompany also hinted to, many sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants to Belgium would support the home nation of their families’ origin, instead of the country in which they lived.
Fellaini believes people coming together to watch soccer games, particularly the Belgian national team, is something that can help bring the nation together in these difficult times.
“Millions of people watch football, they come to watch the games, the atmosphere is unbelievable and the players are happy to play football because of the atmosphere,” Fellaini said. “It is great to see people together and for example when they all support one team and they shout, it is an unbelievable sensation, for the players and the supporters.”
The background and makeup of the players on the Belgian national team also point to the multiculturalism of Belgium and how they, with family heritage from across the globe, can stand for a united nation.
Kompany and Everton striker Romelu Lukaku are of Congolese heritage. Fellaini, Tottenham Hotspur’s Nacer Chadli and teen sensation Zakaria Bakkali are from Morocco. The father of Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele is from Mali.
The family of Liverpool striker Divock Origi is from Kenya. The father of Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel is from Martinique. Thomas Vermaelen speaks to the media in Flemish. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard speaks in French. Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne speaks Dutch, French and English. Fellaini can speak Arabic, French and English.
One thing links all of these players: they play for Belgium.
The amount of nationalities and cultures present within the Belgian national team is vast but this team blends together perfectly.
“There are a lot of players from different origins,” Fellaini explained. “We have Arabic, mixed race, Belgian, black players and that is why Belgium is strong, I think, because we are made up of a lot of different origins and we understand each other.”
Growing up in Belgium, Fellaini’s parents and two brothers played a big role in him making it to the top and the lanky midfielder revealed he does everything he can for them.
“My dad was an ex-professional, so there was a lot of advice for me. He pushed me to be a good player. My mom, she was always there for me. I was a better player than my brothers,” Fellaini laughed before turning serious. “My family was always good with me, helped me, gave me advice and motivation. That’s why I will do everything for them.”
Fellaini left Belgium in 2008, signing for Everton where he became a cult hero under David Moyes’ tutelage. Fellaini followed Moyes to Old Trafford in a $42 million transfer in September 2013 and is keen to remain in the Premier League for as long as he can.
“For me playing in the Premier League and in England, it is different than other countries. It is different football and the supporters are unbelievable,” Fellaini explained. “How they live for football, it is unique. How they are in the stadium and the discipline of the fans as well. For me, it is the best league in the world.”
What about United? What is so special about playing for the 20-time champions of England?
“It is the biggest club in the world with lots of supporters around the world. Everywhere you go they know Man United,” Fellaini said. “I am happy to be part of this club and to play for this club.”
Fellaini is fully focused on United’s title charge for now, but when next June rolls around he will be doubly focused on going to France for EURO 2016. With Belgium currently ranked as the No. 1 team on the planet, they will look to win their first-ever major title and are among the favorites.
“We have qualified, we are there but other countries are the favorites. France, Germany, Spain, they are the big favorites I think. We will see in June,” Fellaini said with a grin on his face. “We are good players and we are a good team so we have to show our quality. The aim is to do better than the World Cup, where we went to the quarterfinals. We first have to go to the semifinal and then if we win the semifinal it will be great. We will see, but in the tournament we never know, we have to win the first game.”
One game many people in the United States will remember Fellaini from is the USA’s defeat of Belgium in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup. Fellaini admitted he has been impressed with the U.S. over recent years as the Belgian national team have played Jurgen Klinsmann’s side home and away in friendlies, as well as at the World Cup.
“They played a great game,” Fellaini said of Belgium’s World Cup win over the U.S. in extra time. “I played a few times against the USA. I played them in Belgium, in America and at the tournament; they are a good team. It was always hard to play against them. Physically, they are strong and they are always in the big tournaments. Soccer is growing quickly now in America.”
Fellaini is no stranger to America either. Spending many of his vacations over the past years in the U.S., he revealed his love for the States, the “open culture” and the “good people.” Asked about making a move to Major League Soccer, he left the door wide open: “Why not, one day? We will see, you never know.”
The one thing everyone seems to know and recognize about Fellaini is his hairdo. His perfect coifed afro has become famous the world over and it’s something he’s looking to keep around, especially when he sees fans all over the world wearing wigs to celebrate his bonce.
“I tried it and I liked it and now it is me, it’s Felli” laughed Fellaini. “I like my style and I won’t change it, at the moment. Of course, it made me happy and is nice to see people with the wigs on.”
Asked what his plans are for life after playing, Fellaini believes he will remain in the game: “I live for football,” he said.
How does he want to be remembered when his career is over?
“As a good person and a good player,” Fellaini says with a smile.
His smile, warm persona and exceptional talent on the pitch mean he’s already achieved both of those aims. There should still be plenty more to come from Fellaini in the jerseys of Manchester United and Belgium.