Ronaldo and Ruud Van Nistelrooy both claim this man was the best partner they ever had alongside them. Luc Nilis’ career was abruptly cut short when he reached the Premier League in 2000, but Freek Fairponts tells the story of Lucky Luc, one of Belgian’s most underrated talents.
Luc Nilis grew up in a small town near Hasselt, called Zonhoven. He joined the local team FC Halveweg Zonhoven and raced through the youth teams. His father, Roger, who was a professional footballer in the 60′s, gave him extra training at home to improve his control and feeling of the ball. And boy did that extra training at home did pay off.
Belgian football first got to know Luc Nilis while he was playing in the second division with FC Winterslag (Now KRC Genk after they merged with THOR Waterschei). He made his debut in the 1984 – ’85 season playing as a striker, playing 22 games and scoring 5 goals. Not a bad start for a kid aged 17. In the following season he managed 11 goals in 25 games which caught the attention of Belgian giants RSC Anderlecht.
In his first season for RSC Anderlecht he started like he did at FC Winterslag by scoring 5 goals. He was of course new at the team and he still had to earn his place in the squad. It was a good season afterall since RSC Anderlecht managed to win the Belgian first division title that season. In his eight years at Anderlecht Nilis won the first division title 4 times, and the national cup 3 times.
Nilis only seemed to be able to make beautiful goals. Nilis didn’t score tap-ins, he was always one for the spectacular. His goals always involved the great technique his dad trained him at home. Shots flying in from distance, in off the post, and the bar. At Anderlecht he was also known for scoring a lot of goals in one game, he always made a couple of hat-tricks a season.
Meanwhile in ’88 he made his debut for the national team, the Red Devils. It took him 10 games to find his scoring touch for the national team, against Zambia in 1993. Strangely Nilis never seemed comfortable in the national team and his talents never blossomed at international level. He got a total of 10 goals in 56 caps. Not his normal goal/game ratio we were used to seeing in Belgium.
After the 1993-’94 season Nilis moved to Holland, to PSV Eindhoven. He was fed up with the lack of recognition he got in his home country (he never won the Golden Boot) and left. He scored 127 goals in 224 games for Les Mauves, that’s an impressive 0.57 goals/game. At PSV Eindhoven we were witnessing some of the greatest partnerships in Dutch football. Nilis-Ronaldo and Nilis-Van Nistelrooy. It was due to these great partnerships that the careers of Ronaldo and Ruud Van Nistelrooy emerged. They both had the chance to play with Luc Nilis. He had the ability to let the whole team play better. He was not afraid to give the decisive pass instead of scoring the goal himself. Nilis was the perfect foil for the team. Both Ronaldo and Van Nistelrooy declared in interviews that the best player they ever played with is Luc Nilis. And we can’t say that they played with mediocre players.
At PSV Luc Nilis scored the most wonderful goals; his volley against Bayern Munich, the no-look back heel vs FC Utrecht. Also at PSV he scored more than 100 goals. Nilis was a PSV player for 6 years, scoring 116 goals in 164 games (0,71 goals/game) and winning a lot of silverware. In only his second season he was the best player of the Dutch championship (the year that Ajax won the Champions League!). He won two Eredivisie titles, one domestic cup and he was topscorer several times.
After the 1999 – ’00 season he got the opportunity to move to the Premier League. Aston Villa came knocking for this great goalscorer, albeit ageing at 33 years old. He only got the chance to play 3 games in the Premiership, scoring one tremendous goal against Chelsea. He received the ball from the side, made a quick flick-up to fool the defence before producing a magnificent volley. His career ended abruptly after colliding hard with Ipswich Town goalkeeper Richard Wright. The pictures of this horrifying injury can be found with an image search but we’ll spare you of the gory details. It ended the career of one of Belgian’s best talents of the 1990′s.
After his career he was technical director of a now defunct Belgian second division team, K. Beringen-Heusden-Zolder before moving back to the club where he belonged: PSV Eindhoven. He was responsible for coaching the strikers and trying to bring them to the same level as on which he ever acted. At this time Luc Nilis is working in Turkey, becoming assistant manager at Gençlerbirliği SK last month under Belgo-Turk, Fuat Çapa.
To end I want to share a little piece about Luc Nilis that I read on a PSV Forum. It describes the real Luc Nilis.
Who would connect Nilis’ name with beers and fries,
Flemish peasants and big muscles,
Nilis isn’t Bruges, nor Ghent.
He’s more like Flamengo or Fluminense,
A brazilian temperament, a feeling that can’t be found in Flemish men
A feeling that’s not hiding in his heart or hands,
his eyes or in his soul, that feeling from a country far away
Nilis’ Brazilian blood runs through his feet
Half inside foot, half instep.
Freek Fraipoints can be found on Twitter at @FootballBelgium tweeting the latest news from the Jupiler Pro League.
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Tagged Anderlecht, Aston Villa, Belgium, Bobby Robson, Chelsea, Fuat Capa, Gençlerbirliği, Genk, Ipswich Town, Jupiler, Jupiler Pro League, Luc Nilis, PSV Eindhoven, Richard Wright, Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Turkey, Winterslag