It was foreseeable that Thomas Meunier would play for Borussia Dortmund at some point. Five years ago, there were rumours of black and yellow interest, but only now is it certain. Who is the 28-year-old right-back from the Belgian Ardennes? A former postman who almost stopped playing football. A defender who wants to end his career as a striker. But above all, Thomas Meunier is a real athlete who fits in with the yellow wall like chocolate in Belgium.
"Thomas Meunier has everything needed to set the Bundesliga alight: tremendous stamina to race up and down his wing. He's a strong athlete, has a good eye for a situation, and doesn't let anyone go past him. And he is rarely injured. Thomas is a security guarantee and is therefore worth his weight in gold for any team. "In Germany, the fans love players who fight to the end of the game. Thomas never gives up." These words of praise come from the mouth of Timmy Simons, Club Brugge icon and a key player at 1. FC Nuremberg from 2010 to 2013. "If I were a club in Germany, I would sign Thomas on the spot," Simons said at the time he shared the dressing room with Thomas Meunier in Brugge. Meunier's nickname is apt: his teammates called him La Machine. "Because he runs right through you."
Germany almost got to know "La Machine" from the Belgian Ardennes a little earlier: in late May 2015, Meunier saw Kevin De Bruyne and his fellow players fluff their lines in the farewell of Jürgen Klopp in the German cup final. Borussia Dortmund lost against VfL Wolfsburg (1-3). Meunier was sitting in the stands that day in Berlin. After a season in which he won the cup with Brugge and reached the quarter-finals of the Europa League, he was ready for a transfer.
The rumours have been around for months. What is certain is that several German clubs have him on their radar. There is talk of Schalke, Frankfurt, Mönchengladbach and Stuttgart, but above all the cup finalists Wolfsburg and Dortmund, have often looked at Meunier, according to the press in Belgium.
Five weeks later, there is no longer any talk of a transfer. During training with the national team, for which he has only won three caps up to this point, he gets his boot caught in the turf after a simple cross. Knee joint twisted, tendon ruptured. The result: two months out. Goodbye transfer. That will eventually follow a year later. When Meunier made his breakthrough as a regular for the "Red Devils" during the European Championships in France, the clubs were queuing up. Two days before Belgium v Wales in quarter-final, Meunier decided that his next destination would not be Germany. Rather, he would go to France – more precisely: Paris Saint-Germain. His contract in Brugge included a clause which allowed him to be signed for €6 million – peanuts for PSG. Meunier is a "no-risk transfer".
Belgium has been a fairy tale richer since that day. The man, who will suddenly be sharing the dressing room with Neymar and other stars, worked as a postman just six years earlier. To understand that, we need to go back to the start.
Thomas Meunier comes from Lavacherie, which is made up of three villages with a total population of 2,500, named after the French for "cowshed", and located in the southernmost province of Belgium. Not every village has its own baker or butcher. And footballing talent here is even more rare. Here, the trenches in the fields serve as sidelines, car lights as floodlights, and the changing rooms are wooden barracks. Two of the boys on the pitch are called Thomas Meunier. They are not related. They call one "speedy", the other – the son of a nurse and a technician – by his first name. "Speedy quickly stopped playing football," remembers the coach of the two at the time, Adrien Vermeesch, "but Thomas was a phenomenon. He scored goal after goal in every game."
The "real" Thomas Meunier is so good that he is called up for the regional squad. Here, Standard Liege discovers him and brings the twelve-year-old to the boarding school in Liege in the summer of 2004. Meunier becomes friends with Christian Benteke, now a striker at Crystal Palace, who has previously played for Liverpool and Aston Villa. Meunier makes it all the way to Belgium's U15s squad. There he meets Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.
However, the boy, who lives with his mother after the difficult separation of his parents, is not the top talent in the club famous for its young talent. There are others, such as Axel Witsel, who is some two years older than him, whom Thomas meets through his cousin. Within two years, he grows by more than 20 centimetres (almost 8 inches). This leads to back and knee problems. Thomas Meunier is almost 15 years old when Standard tell him he has to leave the club.
The shock is so great that he loses the joy of playing football and even thinks about stopping. But his mother, Véronique, knows how obsessed her son really is with this sport. She herself calls Excelsior Virton, a third-league team in Belgium at the time. She asks if her son could come by for a trial. He is allowed – and scores ten goals to help them to a 15-3 victory. "What number do you want on your shirt?" the trainer asks.
After his difficult departure from Standard, Thomas Meunier can once again enjoy the football he loves so dearly in Virton. In Bastogne, world-famous for the oldest one-day cycling race still to be held, "Liege-Bastogne-Liege", he goes to school at the 200-year-old Notre-Dame Séminaire Institute. During the courses in the arts and humanities, he falls in love with Deborah, the daughter of ex-professional Didier Panzokou, who has since been his confidant. This year, Deborah gave Thomas a third child following their sons, Landrys and Tianys. By the way, the "L" tattooed on his left hand refers to his eldest son.
In addition to his love for Deborah, his love for art is also rekindled in school. "What I'm looking for in art are emotions. We were on a school trip, I think near Saarbrücken, and went to a museum in the middle of the forest. I can't remember the name of the painter, but suddenly I stood before his work: a white frame with a black line in it. The piece shocked me at first. Then it fascinated me.
Lower-level football and normal life as a student give Meunier the fun back. At the age of 17, he makes his debut in Virton's first team, in the second division in that season. He also plays Futsal in the third league. Indoor football refines his technique. "I preferred to play that over regular football, but it didn't pay very well. So I chose normal football."
The following season with Virton – now back in the third division – he gets more chances and scores five goals. In 2010/2011, the 19-year-old develops into an absolute sensation. Ten goals, including some absolute pearls widely spread on social media, are attracting the interest of first division teams in the Ardennes, the furthest corner of Belgium. Unbelievable, because Meunier has already completed his education at this time and is doing a very simple job: after his studies in Bastogne, he gets up every morning at 5 a.m. to deliver the post. "I started my lap before the sun came up. I think this job is really fun in London or New York, as all the apartments are close to each other. In Belgium it is different. If it is raining heavily and you have to park your car 50 metres away, you get really tired. After work, I was able to sleep at home all afternoon." Then it was time for training.
After two months, he swaps his job as a postman for a role at Autover, a manufacturer of car windows. He drives to work every day in a VW Polo, in which the sat nav is glued to the window with tape. Between coffee and conversations about football, Meunier stacks shelves. He earns €1.200 a month.
Meanwhile, almost half of the first Belgian division wants to give the sensation from the third tier a professional contract. RSC Anderlecht, Zulte Waregem, KV Kortrijk are among the interested parties. There is talk of Meunier everywhere. Ultimately, it is Club Brugge, who are losing Ivan Perisic to Dortmund, that convince him to sign. The club buys him for just under €200,000. Meunier will be one of the Croatian's successors. "He's the new Perisic," says a teammate who is impressed by the newcomer's skills on the pitch.
Oh, we forgot to tell you, dear readers, that Thomas Meunier had been playing as an attacker until then. He also makes his debut in Brugge as a right-winger and even scores a goal in his first league game. When Belgium's former national coach Georges Leekens comes to Bruges in 2012 and takes over the club, he tries out Meunier as a defender in training. Leekens is convinced: Meunier could have a career in Belgium as a right-winger, but he could also have an international career – as a right-back. Thomas is surprised – and yet is open to the idea. "I wasn't sure if that was my position. But I wanted to play."
Less than one year later – Leekens has already been replaced by Spaniard Juan Carlos Garrido – Meunier will make his debut as a defender in the Europa League against Maritimo Funchal on 6 December 2012. In a very short space of time, he wins the hearts of Brugge and the Belgian public. The skinny boy from Virton weighing only 72 kg (11 st 5 lb) grows into a powerhouse on the right. Now the scale shows almost 90 kg (14 st 2 lb).
Less than a year after his first match as a defender, the 1.90 metre (almost 6'3") man from the Ardennes is invited to link up with the Belgian national team for the first time. Club coach Michel Preud'homme and his assistant Philippe Clement have done extensive video analysis to ensure that the attacker also learns how to defend. However, Meunier misses scoring goals, especially in his last year in Brugge. "For me, it's great fun to score goals. I wanted to ask Preud'homme if I could not go up front again in the playoffs in order to have fun again." He doesn't get the chance, but Meunier resolves to do it – at some stage. "I'm going to be an attacker again. At the end of my career, that's for sure."
Fortunately, that time has not come yet. Driven by the storming right-back, Club Brugge win the Belgian cup in 2015 and the league one year later. After sporadic call-ups in the years before (he has five full caps by this point), national coach Marc Wilmots takes him to France for the European Championships in 2016. In the first game, he is still on the bench, but after the defeat against Italy in the opener, Meunier slips into the starting line-up, sets up Axel Witsel's goal in the 3-0 win against Ireland (to make it 2-0) and also plays over 90 minutes in all subsequent games. The "Red Devils" reach the quarter-finals (losing 1-3 against Wales), and whereas only Middlesbrough from England had showed interest in Meunier up to that point, now clubs from all over Europe are calling Club Brugge.
Paris St. Germain come out on top. Nobody expects much from the still unknown Belgian. He seems destined for a seat on the bench. "At first I stayed in the same hotel as Patrick Kluivert, who had just been appointed as the director of PSG. When we left for a training camp in Los Angeles, I was sitting in the same car to the airport as Kluivert. I greeted him, we talked a little bit, and then he asked me who I was. I explained to him in Dutch that I played at the European Championships and had just signed for PSG. He didn't recognise me." His new teammate Thiago Motta, with whom he had swapped shirts during the European Championships, didn't know him either.
The starting right-back of the top French team at this time is the Ivorian powerhouse, Serge Aurier. The new coach, Unai Emery, who followed Meunier closely when he was still coach of Sevilla (2013 to 2016), gives the unknown Belgian the chance to play his first minutes straight away.
When Aurier is sold to Tottenham in August 2017, Meunier has to compete with veteran Dani Alves, the best friend of Paris' sun king, Neymar, for the next two seasons. Nevertheless, he continues to play as often as his Brazilian competitor, even when Emery is replaced by Thomas Tuchel. In four years, Meunier wins eleven titles with PSG, including the cup twice and the league three times. But only in his last season does he appear to be the undisputed starter under Tuchel. Yet minor injuries are slowing him down. "The less I play, the more problems accumulate. I'm like an old car left in the parking lot. It gets dirty, sand creeps into the engine, and so you have to go to the workshop all the time for repairs. The best thing for me is to make me run. My body is used to giving everything."
However, under Tuchel, he has to contain his attacking impulses. His German coach often shouts at the Belgian hoarsely. "He likes to be in control. That's why he's constantly giving advice," says Meunier. "But I've noticed that he's shouting less and less over time. In other words, my game is improving. I have to apply the brakes. I can't think about attacking all the time. I used to have a hard time with that. As soon as the ball was up front, I started to sprint and got up to the box. I've become more disciplined."
Outside football, Meunier has remained the same. An art lover who enjoys a Belgian beer. A free spirit, who will happily go to the Tomorrowland dance festival dressed as Batman in his spare time. And he remains closely connected to his home country. Once again this summer, he is spending his holidays in the Ardennes and has an investment in a shop in Bastogne, which sells chicken skewers. Last year, he sponsored the "Thousand Smiles" project on the Franco-African island of La Réunion. He doesn't mince his words and is immune to the frenzy that social media can create. Meunier knows where he comes from. And where he is going now.
Coming from PSG, where the team largely plays second fiddle to Neymar, Meunier now meets a squad with the offensive style he adores. In Dortmund, football that fits Meunier is preached. Especially because Dortmund under Lucien Favre play like Belgium under Roberto Martinez. And Meunier always plays his best especially with the "Red Devils", like a train that doesn't stop – almost a playmaker from the wing. Seven goals and twelve assists in under 40 caps are the ultimate proof of this.
He makes the decision to play for Borussia Dortmund in future. Available on a free transfer and in his prime at the age of 28, there is great interest in Meunier. But the SIGNAL IDUNA PARK has drawn him in since 18 February. And it has not let him go. Meunier came to Dortmund with PSG for the Last-16 round in the Champions League. With a beaming smile, he takes to the pitch. "I was delighted like a little child. The volume, the atmosphere that emanates from these people who are so close to the pitch.
In his first interview in Germany, he adds: "The decision to go to BVB was made with my heart. At the age of 28, I wanted to come to a club that is similar to me and my mentality and my way of thinking. As a true football fan, BVB is definitely the club I love for how great its fans are – regardless of victory or defeat. In France, there is a lot of respect for Borussia, and even more in Belgium. I like to call the BVB the further development of my home club Brugge: ambitious and authentic and down to earth in a good way.
It is no coincidence that Thomas Meunier compares Borussia Dortmund to Club Brugge, the club to which he still wants to return. "Quite right," says Timmy Simons about this comparison. "The atmosphere that comes from the yellow wall is unique and impressive. If you have to compare them to a club in Belgium, then it would be Brugge," says Simons: "Just like in Brugge, the fans in Dortmund love you to give everything you have until the final whistle. Thomas should be able to fit in perfectly with his character and qualities." What's more, he will find some familiar faces when he comes to the Ruhr. He gets along well with Thorgan Hazard and Axel Witsel. Witsel has joined him at Tomorrowland and on holiday in Ibiza.
The fairytale of La Machine is not over yet.
Author: Koen van Uytvange
Editor: Het Nieuwsblad
Translation: Kelly Dulfer, Inger Smits
Date of birth: 12 September 1991
Place of birth: Sainte-Ode (Belgium)
Height: 190 cm
1996 – 2002 RUS Sainte-Ode
2002 – 2004 RUS Givry
2004 – 2006 Standard Liege
2006 – 2011 Royal Excelsior Virton
2011 – 2016 Club Brugge
2016 – 2020 Paris Saint-Germain
Belgian league winner: 2016
French league winner: 2018, 2019, 2020
Belgian cup winner: 2015
French cup winner: 2017, 2018