Life Lessons with Dries Mertens: The Street Dog Striker with a Smile on His Face

Paolo Bandini@@Paolo_BandiniSpecial to Bleacher ReportApril 6, 2017

B/R

NAPLES, Italy — Dries Mertens stares down the camera as he sinks a no-look pool shot, then giggles when a behind-the-back attempt goes awry. He cannot stand still for more than a few seconds, chasing the cue ball eagerly across the felt. And he will not walk away until the table is clear.

For those who have watched Mertens play in Serie A this season, it's a familiar look. That same restless pursuit of scoring positions has been the defining characteristic of a campaign in which the 29-year-old has emerged as one of the most prolific forwards in Europe.

Mertens struck seven times in the space of two games in December, grabbing a hat-trick against Cagliari and putting four goals past Torino's England goalkeeper Joe Hart. Not even the great Diego Maradona, at the height of his powers, achieved such a feat during his glorious years at Napoli.

When the Italian media raised that comparison last year, Mertens wasn't happy. "I hate when people say things about that," he sighs, his gentle voice dipping into a near whisper. "Because Maradona was something special, you know?"

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Likening any player to Maradona, the living legend who inspired Napoli to the only two Serie A titles in their history, will always be an exercise in futility. But Mertens, with 25 goals in a season spent mostly on the bench until October, must at least admit he deserves to be called "special"?

"Yeah, that's true," he says, impish smile creeping back across his lips. "I did some good things, and I'm very proud of it. But I know there's still some work to do."


In March, Mertens delivered a defining performance with both goals in Napoli's 2-1 win against Roma. He also stole the show with a goal celebration: getting down on all fours to impersonate a dog and pretending to urinate on the corner flag.

This was in part a tribute to Finidi George, who pulled a similar move after scoring for Nigeria against Greece at the 1994 World Cup. It was also a reflection of Mertens' own beloved pet pooch, Juliet. He and his wife, Katrin, adopted her from an organisation that rescues strays. The couple also support several kennels in the city.

"You know a dog loves you for who you are; they don't know if you're a soccer player or not," Mertens says. "Sometimes people treat you good because you're a footballer or because you're famous, but a dog doesn't know it. So maybe that's something I really like about them."

And what breed of dog would he be? "A street dog," he replies without hesitation. "A mix of everything."

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Might the dog be a metaphor for the man? This is not always a straightforward city in which to be a footballer—with a passion around the game that can become overwhelming. Even as we speak, in a hotel adjacent to Napoli's training ground, a small scrum of staff members is gathering, eager to grab a photo with Mertens when we finish.

"Yeah, it's crazy," he says. "You're never going to see something like it again. Maybe in Argentina, when you see Boca Juniors-River Plate, they are also crazy there, but what you see here: all the people eat, sleep, live for football.

"Where I live, there's an old lady, I think she's 85, almost 90 years old. This morning I came out and she's like, 'oh, I loved how you played, and I loved that celebration.' I'm like, 'damn, even she's watching.' It's crazy, it's really crazy. And that's something that, for sure, you're going to miss after you go."

Mertens has not tried to shield himself from the madness, but to embrace it, incorporating a little bit of Naples into his own personal street dog mix.

"I like to live like a local," he says. "When you are somewhere, you have to try to take the culture of that place and try to adapt. The people make me feel good here, so I try to live like them. Neapolitan people are always outside. They are not in front of the television.

"When I lived in Holland, it was a lot of television, watching Netflix all the time. You eat at 6 o'clock, 7 o'clock, you are finished at 8, and then you go lay down. You rest. That's what I did in Holland.

"But here we are finished with training at 6 or 7 p.m. I come home at 7:30. I prepare, and we go eat outside or at home, at 8:30-9. And then you are finished at 11, 11:30, because that moment at the table is more important than other things. Then after dinner you go to bed, or you're going to read a book. It's different. I don't know, I think I like it more living this way."

It helps that the dinner itself is so good, of course. Mertens has been effusive in his enthusiasm for Neapolitan mozzarella, though he declines to eat any of the three large cheeses sent out by the hotel kitchen for our photo shoot—insisting that he has to watch his diet during the season.

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Still, there are plenty of other delicious treats to be found in this part of the world. He is keen on rice and bresaola (air-dried beef)—a combination that Pippo Inzaghi was reputed to have practically lived off during his days at Milan.

"I didn't know that," Mertens says when that last piece of information is revealed. "Maybe that's the secret. Maybe it's the bresaola."


Dries Mertens was born in Leuven, Belgium, to two athletic parents. His father is a gym teacher, his mother a university lecturer. Both are trained ski instructors. Mertens was the classic kid who would spend every spare moment with a ball at his feet.

"I didn't really have any football idols as a kid because I was always outside," he says. "At my parents' house, the television was never on. Never. Maybe for the World Cup, or something. But even then we were more likely to be playing outside, because I had two older brothers and they were also out with us—just like the whole street. My father made a field next to our house for us to play on."

And yet, for all that enthusiasm and athletic heritage, Mertens was not what the Italians would call un predestinato—one bound for great things. Recruited to join Anderlecht's academy as a teenager, Mertens struggled to break into the first team and top-flight football.

Mertens celebrates a PSV goal in 2011.
Mertens celebrates a PSV goal in 2011.Getty

Reports at the time claimed his height was an issue, with Mertens standing just over 5'5". But he insists the truth was more nuanced.

"It's not that I was too short," he says. "I just was not ready. Even when I got to 18, I had a body like a guy who was 15. People were writing all sorts of things, like, 'Yeah, he's angry because they let him go.' I was not angry. I wasn't good enough at that moment."

Mertens briefly swapped Anderlecht for Gent, but when he found his path to the first team, he signed for AGOVV Apeldoorn in the Dutch second division instead. Slowly, patiently, he developed himself into a more robust player. He landed a move to top-flight Utrecht in 2009 and then joined PSV two years later.

With each step, Mertens refined his game. By the time he joined Napoli in 2013, he was a fixture of the Belgian national team and was averaging more than one goal for every two matches in the Dutch Eredivisie.

"That's something I really want to be able to teach people," he says. "At 18, I was playing with team-mates that were better than me, that had more talent. But I think they were too proud to take a step back. Sometimes you prefer to stay at Anderlecht and sit on the bench for two or three years and think, 'I can say I still play for Anderlecht, I'm not going to go to the second division.'

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"But sometimes taking a step back, to play more games and be important for another team, means you can make a step forward feeling stronger—that's something people have to do. And it might be that you make the step back and then you fail. But at least you tried it. Staying put is too easy, I think."

But there also moments when sticking it out can pay dividends. Mertens found himself in the uncomfortable position of playing less football than he would have liked last season—starting just six league games for Napoli as Lorenzo Insigne became a clear first choice for new manager Maurizio Sarri on the left wing.

He could have cut his losses and moved on. Instead, Mertens resolved to stay and fight for his place. He impressed Sarri with his commitment, and early in the season he alternated games with Insigne. Then fate took an unlikely turn.

An injury to Arkadiusz Milik left Napoli with a void at centre-forward. Manolo Gabbiadini was the obvious choice to replace him, but Sarri was unconvinced. Instead, the manager took a gamble by naming Mertens up front for a Champions League group game against Besiktas. Although Napoli lost, the Belgian scored one goal and created several more opportunities with his pace and directness.

Getty
GettyFILIPPO MONTEFORTE/Getty Images

Not bad for a player who had never started a game at this position in his life. "Well, only in five-a-side," Mertens interjects. "If we were playing that kind of football as kids, then I would always play as a striker. So I guess from there I did get a little feeling for goal, this sense of 'turn and shoot.'"

Experts quickly defined him as a "false nine," but Mertens hardly looked like one. Sure, he would come deep at times to take possession and distribute it to team-mates running beyond him on either side. Right from the start, though, he also demonstrated a willingness to play off the shoulder of the last defender and attack the spaces in behind.

"I think I know what people want to say when they use that 'false nine,'" Mertens says, "because I'm not a big guy who can keep the ball and who can do what people have in their mind as the image of a striker. But football changes, and the way teams play changes. I think with the goals I've scored now, I think we can leave the 'false' and say I'm just a No. 9."

When I point out that there have been strikers of his body type before, Mertens once again jumps in quickly. "Yeah, but I also understand I never played in this position. Michael Owen, he was born as a striker. I was never born as a striker. That's why sometimes I can make mistakes in front of goal."

Mertens in action for Belgium, March 2017.
Mertens in action for Belgium, March 2017.Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

This theme of not being a "true" striker is one that Mertens returns to. At the time of writing, he sits one goal ahead of his former team-mate Gonzalo Higuain in the Serie A scoring charts. It is an extraordinary feat when you consider Mertens has started fewer games and that the Argentinian—now at Juventus—posted the most prolific season in Serie A history last year.

"We're friends; he [Higuain] texts me to congratulate me when I do well," Mertens says. "But I know that in the end he wants to be ahead of me. Like Michael Owen, he was born like this. He wakes up in the morning, and all he sees is the goal. He feels like a No. 9 on the inside, and his shirt says No. 9 as well. For me, No. 9 or No. 14 is the same."

Gradually, though, that mindset is shifting.

"Before, I would always have said that an assist was as satisfying as a goal. But now I see that, as a striker, when you don't score, [people say] you played s--t. When you score, even if you played s--t, you're good. That's all people see when you're playing as a striker, so it's important to score goals. So from now on, I'm scoring goals."


In an interview with the Neapolitan newspaper Il Mattino this January, Mertens was asked to list his wishes for 2017. He said he would like to keep on scoring goals, to win a trophy and to be happy. With Napoli out of both the domestic cup and the Champions League, and Juventus steaming toward another Serie A title, it appears he may have to settle for two out of three.

Spending time with him, though, you get the impression that happiness is the one that truly matters the most. Mertens loves football, and he loves to compete, but above all he loves people.

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Ask him what the worst part of his career is, and he won't talk about hostile fans or intrusive journalists, but about the sadness of leaving friends and family behind with each transfer. Even when he was playing for Belgium at the World Cup, he remembers times when he sat in the team hotel wishing he could be with his family, who had rented a big house in Brazil to spend the whole summer together.

Likewise, if you ask Mertens to name some of the best things about being a footballer, beyond playing a sport that he adores, he might tell you what a privilege it is to be able to walk into a hospital and brighten up somebody's day just by being you.

"I'm not so much believing in something [religious]," he explains. "But I believe in the way of, 'if you're happy and the people around you are happy, your world's going to be more beautiful.' That's my way of living. I know not everyone can be happy all the time—that's the difficult thing. But it starts with you. If everybody tries to live like that, it's gonna be a beautiful world."

Of course, there will be days when that mantra is easier to say than to deliver upon. But if Dries Mertens' career, and his time at the pool table, tell us anything, it's that this guy doesn't easily quit.


Paolo Bandini is a regular football features contributor for Bleacher Report and also writes for the Guardian, The Score, TalkSport and ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @Paolo_Bandini.

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