Wolfsburg are set to play Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga’s first game of 2015 in just over two weeks time. It should have been a chance for Junior Malanda to make up for what happened on the opening day of the campaign in Munich.
It seemed meaningful at the time in August when Malanda, yards from goal with Wolfsburg 2-1 down at champions Bayern, didn’t put a ball into a net. It seemed meaningful again when Malanda missed from a similar distance against Eintracht Frankfurt a week later. It all became utterly meaningless on Saturday afternoon when 20-year-old Junior Malanda passed away.
What should shape the memory of Malanda though is how he reacted to such a situation. A man by the name of Epictetus, a Greek philosopher in fact, once said: “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.” That was the approach he took after the Bayern game, saying: “I can only learn from it. I’ll hold my head high. I need to stay focused.”
A few weeks later, he told kicker: “All I can do now is laugh about it,” as he showed the sort of attitude that had allowed him to make it to one of the top clubs in Germany by the age of 19.The belief placed in him and the potential seen in him by his current club Wolfsburg was such that the young Belgian was handed a five year contract when he signed back in the summer of 2013, having played just a single season of senior football.
He hadn’t merely played though. Malanda had made a significant contribution to Zulte Waregem’s best ever finish as they came second in the Belgian top flight in 2013. Malanda made his debut at the start of the campaign aged 17 as the midfielder then proceeded to carve out a reputation as one of the division’s most promising players. He rejoined Zulte Waregem for a spell on loan after his permanent switch to Wolfsburg was sealed. Then, just over a year ago, he was presented to the media at the club’s training camp in Abu Dhabi.
Back then, in an interview with German newspaper WAZ, he spoke of what he wanted to achieve with the club. Malanda’s response though to what he did in his spare time brings home just how tragic his passing on Saturday was – because just like a lot of 20-year-old guys, he enjoyed playing on his PlayStation, watching films and seeing his mates.
That Junior Malanda was a footballer has brought publicity to this tragedy. “Belgian football has lost one of its great hopes,” were the words of national team coach Marc Wilmots in the wake of his passing.
And yet for all that Junior Malanda could do and indeed did do with a ball, it is difficult to move away from the central fact that a 20-year-old has passed away in such sudden and unexpected circumstances – the tragedy of which is epitomised by the words used by his teammates and friends to describe it.
“So strange to hear your friend in the morning and then hear this news. Lost a great friend way too early,” said teammate Kevin De Bruyne.
“Not only a great player, but a great person… Your kind heart was rare and special,” said another teammate, Nicklas Bendtner.
Then, there was Everton striker Romelu Lukaku, who grew up with Malanda.
“I love you my brother. Junior, why you are my brother….my brother, one of my only and unique friends, I cannot believe you are not there anymore.”
Thorgan Hazard played alongside him at Zulte Waregem in Malanda’s first full season as a professional, helping to drive the club to a lofty position. They connected both off the pitch and on it. The last goal Malanda scored for the club before he signed with Wolfsburg was assisted by Hazard. His current team Borussia Mönchengladbach said on Saturday evening that Hazard had lost his best friend. Hazard himself said: “Whyyyyy??? I love you brooo.”
And then there was journalist Philip Harmeling. Malanda had told him only a few weeks ago: “2015 will be my year, I’ll do anything to be the best footballer and win trophies.” For all the determination and character reflected in this young man, the devastating poignancy is that Junior Malanda won’t have the chance to fulfil his potential as he would have liked.
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