As a young boy growing up in an immigrant-populated suburb of Antwerp, Moussa Dembele learned his football on a concrete basketball court.
This was no kick-and-rush education, though. The goal was the pole which held up the basketball hoop and scoring entailed striking the pole.
The game, as explained by Fulham’s roving striker, sounds utterly simple, but then the 23-year-old Belgian exudes confidence.
‘It was five-a-side. The pole was such a small target that you had to play one-twos, use your technical skill to get a goal. It gave me a solution for everything. That’s why the ball is my friend,’ said Dembele with a matter-of-factness which underscores his belief in himself.
There is little doubt in his mind that he is headed for the top. Were it not expressed so calmly it could pass for arrogance.
But then Dembele, whose father hails from Mali, his mother from Belgium, is also a fierce critic of his own failings.
Four years ago, just before his 20th birthday, he and his AZ Alkmaar team-mates under coach Louis van Gaal went into their final game at relegated Excelsior needing just a draw to win the Dutch title. They lost. In the dressing room after the game, heads were bowed in sorrow. All except one.
‘I didn’t know how to react. Everybody else was sad but I was angry thinking we didn’t deserve to win the title if we couldn’t handle the pressure against a team like that. It was a strange day for me.
‘I was angry at everything. The team and myself because I had missed a few chances. It stayed with me a few days then went away but the feeling kept coming back months later. How did we lose the championship like that? It hurt again. So now in big games I want to make the difference.’
Niggling injuries restricted Dembele to just 10 Premier League starts before Christmas after his £5million summer move from Alkmaar, where he eased the collective pain by helping the club to the title the following season. But he is now a regular starter, and Fulham’s improvement in the new year can be attributed in part to the direct running threat the Belgium striker gives a team whose patient passing movements sometimes blunt their effectiveness.
Dembele didn’t turn up at Craven Cottage by chance. Everything fitted, including a glowing reference from international team-mate Vincent Kompany about Fulham manager Mark Hughes, under whom Kompany played at Manchester City. And now a fit-again strike partner in Bobby Zamora, who has already impressed Dembele.
‘I was happy for Bobby to score two goals last Sunday,’ he said. ‘He holds the ball up so well and shows a lot of strength when in possession which allows me to create forward runs and make myself available for the short pass as well. He uses his strength really well and you can tell that he is hungry and determined to contribute to the team having missed most of the season.
‘There were a lot of factors in choosing Fulham. Last year they did a great job in the Europa League so it makes you think they have to be a good team. Then there was living in London and my agent told me also that Fulham are a stable club with a good mentality.
‘And Vincent Kompany told me about Mark Hughes. That was also really important for me. He told me Mark Hughes had been a top footballer so he understands players and his relationship with the players is very good, that the training sessions are very good and that he is one of the best managers he has had in his career. I recognise that now.
‘There were times at the beginning of the season when everybody was panicking a little bit because results were not so good but the manager and the coaches didn’t pass that pressure on to the players. They told everybody to stay calm, just to do their jobs and everything will be all right. That was important, a good piece of management.
‘I’ve asked the players what it was like last year under the previous manager (Roy Hodgson). They said it was a different way, more defensive. I’m happy that I came to the club now because for me it’s better to play football. It’s more my type of style. I want players to play the ball to me. I want to be involved in the game, to make the difference.’
Before he moves upwards and onwards if all goes to plan, including impressing possible suitors like Saturday’s opponents Manchester United, Dembele wants to ensure Fulham pull away from the relegation zone and then win a trophy next season.
‘If Birmingham can do it why not us? The big teams may have more quality than us but as a group we are strong. You can feel that everybody is confident. Nobody thinks we are going to lose and we are not an easy team to play against. We play well against the big teams so we don’t have to be scared of anybody.
‘I feel really comfortable in English football already but of course it becomes easier the more you know the league.
‘Before I signed I knew I would enjoy it because there are no small teams in the Premier League so you want to play every game and it is easy to motivate yourself. Every opponent is a good player so you are testing yourself every week. There are no easy defenders here.’
Dembele hopes he can be a part of the rebirth of the Belgian national side with the likes of Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Vermaelen.
Three years ago he was a member of the side which finished fourth at the Beijing Olympics, an occasion memorable for a meeting with a sporting phenomenon.
‘We spent a few days in the athletes’ village. The others all wanted a picture with Usain Bolt. I didn’t really know who he was because I don’t really watch other sports but we got our picture with him anyway. I know who he is now. I’m glad I have the picture.’