During his playing days the esteemed former Belgian international forward Luc Nilis was a player who had little in common with his country’s current line leader, Romelu Lukaku, nor indeed 1980s star Jan Ceulemans, the forward generally considered to be Belgium’s greatest ever.
Nilis was a very different sort of beast with a playing style closer to that of Belgium’s first-ever striking superstar, Paul Van Himst, a clever and highly-skilled striker for Anderlecht and Belgium during the 1960s. Like Van Himst, Luc Nilis was a player who favoured craft over brawn and his intelligence, quick-wittedness, dribbling skills and, of course, scoring ability made him one of football’s most potent forwards of the 1990s.
w and his rapidly burgeoning reputation saw him called up for, then progress rapidly through the Belgian U16, U17, U18 and U19 sides. By the time he was appearing for the U21 team Anderlecht came calling to sign him and he would enjoy eight successful years in the capital, winning seven major honours and living up to his ambitious billing as the great white hope of the Belgian game.
His move to a PSV Eindhoven side in 1994 that was one of the stronger in Europe at the time was the catalyst for him to develop into a genuinely top class striker. He outshone his young strike partner Ronaldo, dovetailed beautifully with Wim Jonk, then latterly formed a deadly partnership with Ruud van Nistelrooy – the Dutchman providing more of the goals and Nilis almost all of the inspiration thanks to the effortless manner in which he twisted and turned past defenders to create openings. This profitable partnership brought 103 goals between 1998 and 2000.
” I’ve always thought of him as a very special player, the sort of forward who can turn the course of a game with one single moment of brilliance.”
International team mate Lorenzo Staelens.
Nilis’ creativity and the number of assists he provided for colleagues didn’t mean he was shy when it came to the actual execution of goals either. During his time with Anderlecht and PSV he averaged a highly respectable 16 league goals a season, many finished with the sort of coruscating power that his slim body didn’t look like it should have been capable of generating.
Curiously for such a naturally gifted and prolific forward, Nilis never found international football as easy to tame as the club game. From the time he made his full Belgian debut in 1988 it took 22 appearances before he managed his first international goal. His manager Guy Thys suggested he didn’t have the self belief and that first goal opened no floodgates – his career total would end on a modest 10 from 56 appearances.
At the age of 33 Nilis was given a late career opportunity to show his skills outside Belgium and Holland when he joined Aston Villa in the summer of 2000. His English adventure would be a very short and very tragic one when after just a handful of games he suffered a career-ending leg break from a collision.
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One of the most telling testaments to the worth of any player is how he is rated by his peers, and Luc Nilis was universally praised by the many fine players who operated alongside him – and cursed no doubt by the many defenders whom he bamboozled with his considerable skill and guile.