MANCHESTER: Steven Defour said he could yet play in the Gulf after coming within a “couple of days” of moving to the UAE.
The Belgium midfielder seemed poised to sign a lucrative deal with Al-Jazira from Anderlecht in 2016. But as terms had not been finalized, Burnley — having been promoted to the Premier League — stepped in with a higher £7.5 million ($9.6 million) offer to bring Defour to England instead.
“I was very close to playing in the Emirates,” said the 30-year-old. “It was maybe a matter of a couple of days.
“I was thinking about it and Burnley were just quicker on the ball — and I chose Burnley.
“Al-Jazira was a club that wanted to improve a lot, was going to play in the Club World Cup and they wanted to be champions. They were ambitious and that appealed to me.
“But I made the choice to come to Burnley and to be fair it has played out good for me. I wanted to still play at a higher level and I got to play in the Premier League, and I got back in the national team so that was good for me.
“But maybe someday I could go there and play (in the Middle East). We will see.”
Burnley have triggered a contract extension to keep Defour until 2020 despite his Turf Moor spell being blighted by injuries.
Knee surgery in January left him on the sidelines for nine months, denying him the chance of a place in Belgium’s World Cup squad.
That seems to sum up his career, a case of what might have been after Europe’s top clubs tracked him when he made his international debut in 2006 aged 18.
A year later Defour captained Standard Liege, won the Belgian Golden Shoe as best player, and led his side to the championship in 2008 and 2009.
Sir Alex Ferguson also wrote a letter of encouragement to him as he recovered from a broken foot, prompting speculation that Manchester United would sign him.
“It’s been tough for me with the injuries,” admitted Defour, who left Liege for Porto in 2011 before joining Anderlecht three years later.
“I think maybe I could have gone on to a higher level, done more, if I didn’t have these injuries. But that’s life, that’s football and you have to accept it.
“I accepted it and have tried to make the most of my career since then.
“It was tough to miss out on the World Cup, of course. But I’m now glad to be back playing again for Burnley.
“I have had an injury that kept me out for nine months and you cannot plan too far ahead. So now I just try to play as much as I can, enjoy every game and play a level as high as possible and just see where it takes me.”
While Defour has perhaps not achieved all that was once expected, he is pleased to see compatriots Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard show their class.
After De Bruyne’s Manchester City beat Burnley 5-0 last weekend, the Clarets face Hazard and Chelsea on Sunday for another tough Premier League test.
Defour is hoping home advantage will help them stifle Maurizio Sarri’s title challengers, but admits football lovers should enjoy witnessing the talents of Hazard and De Bruyne, who was also with him at first club Genk.
“Kevin is very good, one of the smartest players I have seen on a pitch because he thinks so far ahead of anybody,” he added.
“He can put the ball anywhere you want. He’s not the quickest, he’s not the one who will dribble the most but he can do anything so fast just with his thinking.
“He and Eden are not players that come every year. Not even every five or 10 years, just once in a while. They are special players. So we have to enjoy them while they are here now, we just have to enjoy what they do.”
Both have been tipped as future Ballon d’Or winners and Defour believes they can get even better.
“They are not like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, it’s not the same as them,” he said. “Kevin is a midfielder who is assisting, Eden is making a difference by dribbling, making and scoring goals now, it’s different styles.
“They are class players, but I think they can still improve more.
“I think Eden is doing that this year with a very attacking coach. That is helping him. The coach is letting him do whatever he wants offensively and you start seeing him scoring goals and playing the way he has been.”
Defour, though, won’t be playing with the priceless pair for his country any more after announcing his international retirement.
“We have a lot of talent with Belgium and it’s good when our players like this do so well,” added the 52-cap player.
“But I’ve retired and that’s it. It was a tough decision to make, but as a player you have to think about what to do to play as long as possible on the pitch.
“Because of the injuries it’s hard, and if you go out with the national team it’s another hit on your body.
“I want to be the best I can be at club level and to be as fit as I can be. I want to play as long as possible.”