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A new role has elevated Club Brugge skipper Gert Verheyen to the Belgian national team top table.

Until recently Verheyen was exclusively used as a right-sided midfielder or winger, and while nobody ever doubted his industry, determination and ability to cut inside andgo for goal, he was rarely acknowledged as a key man for the Red Devils.

Yet how the perception of him has changed for the better since his outstanding work as a central striker in his team’s 2-0 aggregate victory over the Czech Republic in the World Cup play-offs.

Not only did Verheyen score the only goal of the first leg, but he also won the late penalty in Prague which, when converted, ensured Belgium’s passage to their sixth consecutive World Cup finals. In both games he led the line with muscle and intelligence, posing problems that the opposition defenders never got to grips with.

Belgium coach Robert Waseige now has three high-class strikers – Verheyen, Wesley Sonck and Emile Mpenza – battling for two berths up front. But the smart euros must be on Verheyen occupying one of them in South Korea and Japan.

“I thinkI’ve proved I can be an international striker,” says Verheyen, who stood in as Belgium’s captain for the injured Marc Wilmots in the play-offs. “I feel very comfortable with a central role in attack, being one of the two strikers. You are more involved in the game there than on the right wing.

“The play-off win was very satisfying because we came through against hard opponents in difficult circumstances. No one really expected us to beat the Czechs. I’m also proud because of the part Club Brugge played in qualifying. Everyone knows that Club Brugge stands for fight and will-to-win, and the players from our club [himself, plus midfielders Philippe Clement and Timmy Simons] bring these characteristics to the squad. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t know how to play good football.”

These are great times for Verheyen. He has been exceptional for his club as they strive for another League title; a four-goal haul in a 4-0 win at Charleroi in November took him through the 100-goal barrier; and he was runner-up to Sonck in the Belgian Player of the Year award for 2001. However, the 31-year-old refutes the idea that he is some sort of overnight sensation. ”

Most people only noticed me when I scored in the play-offs,” he says. “Even though I’m getting a lot of attention at the moment, I feel I’ve been playing well for along while.”

At France 98, Verheyen was sent off in a first-round game against Mexico. Expect him to make a much more positive contribution at this World Cup.

FACT FILE
Club Belgium
Born September 20, 1970, in Hoogstraten
Previous clubs Hoogstraten, Lierse, Anderlecht
International debut October 1994, v Denmark
International caps 42 (10 goals)
Honours Belgian League 1991 (Anderlecht), 1996, 1998 (Club Brugge); Belgian Cup 1989 (Anderlecht)

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