Tucked away in Eastern Belgium, closer to the Dutch border than the major Belgian cities, Genk is a former coal mining town which fewer than 70,000 people call home. Even in a small country, it falls distinctly into the provincial category, yet the city has emerged as the unlikely starting point for some of football’s biggest stars.
Within a roughly 100 mile radius of Genk, you’ll find Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, and Liège, not to mention Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Eindhoven, and Dortmund. Not only larger cities, but also ones steeped in football history, home to clubs that had already racked up a sea of honours by the time KRC Genk even came to existence, following the merger of two local clubs in 1988.
Despite twice dropping into the second tier in the early years, the decision to merge Waterschei SV Thor Genk and KFC Winterslag would in time prove an unqualified success, and by the turn of the century, Genk were really starting to make waves in Belgian football. They won the title for the first time in 1998/99, repeating the trick three years later. That was the catalyst for a debut appearance in the UEFA Champions League group stage where they secured creditable draws against Italian giants Roma and defending champions Real Madrid.
However, in a European setting, Genk will always be little more than a small fish in a very large pond. To stand any chance of being competitive against bigger clubs from stronger leagues in the modern era, they were going to need to do something out of the ordinary.
That’s why to understand Genk’s story, the most important milestone is not any individual title or trophy, or big Champions League night. It can, rather, be traced back to the decision in the early 2000’s to invest heavily in the infrastructure required for a thriving modern youth academy.
It was that decision, coupled with the subsequent unwavering belief in young talent, which has provided the foundations that have enabled the club to go on to become one of European football’s 21st century success stories. From Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois to Yannick Carrasco, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Leandro Trossard, Genk’s list of academy graduates is long, impressive, and constantly growing.
Roland Breugelmans has been part of the journey since the very beginning. During nearly 35 years at the club, he has seen all of Genk’s brightest young talents come through, and, in many cases, go on to shine on the very biggest of stages. While insistent there is no secret recipe that Genk’s success can be attributed to, the Academy Director is able to shed some light on their approach: “For me, the most important thing—you need a philosophy in your club that the board believes in young players and that we give chances in the squad or the first team to young players.
“We have had many presidents, but each president knows the philosophy of our academy.”
Genk’s recent history is littered with stories of academy graduates getting their first team chances at a young age and grasping the opportunity. However the path to stardom is rarely linear, even for some of Genk’s biggest talents as Breugelmans recalls,
“Thibaut started as a young boy of eight years old. He lived ten minutes from our club and in the beginning, the first six, seven years, nobody [would have believed] that Thibaut is today, for me, the best goalkeeper in the world.
“Kevin is another story. Kevin was 14 years old, he came from Gent. In the beginning, difficult is not the word, but he needs time.”
Courtois and De Bruyne would blossom into bright young talents who helped Genk win the 2010/11 Belgian Pro League. Both were still just teenagers at the time, but the triumph would prove the end of Courtois’ time at the club, with a transfer to Chelsea that summer, immediately followed by three successful years on loan at Atlético Madrid.
De Bruyne would also sign for Chelsea early the following year, but it was in the Bundesliga with Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg where he would take the next steps on his journey to becoming one of the game’s elite midfielders.
“We need the money to sell players because we don’t have someone with a lot of money like the English clubs and a lot of clubs,” explains Breugelmans. “Each year we hope that we can sell a player and we know it’s starting up, starting up each new year. It’s the model of Genk and Belgium is a little country and I think we like to stay the group together but it’s impossible with like Onuachu when we have 18 million Euros,” he says, referencing the Nigerian striker, the latest Genk player (although not an academy graduate) to move to the Premier League following his switch to Southampton earlier this year.
Academy technical director Koen Daerden, a former Belgian international who was a young member of the Genk first team squad himself when the now famous youth program opened in 2003, goes into more detail on the club’s approach.
“It’s already 20 years. To maintain this same philosophy, this stability. That’s the success of our club and also for the academy,” he says.
On the approach to player development, Daerden explains, “It’s all about developing and there’s so many things around a player nowadays. It’s not only about football, it’s also about personality, it’s about school environment, but environment in general, social environment.
“We have to manage every time, each player well talented or not, even if he is not ready today, maybe in a few years.
“For example, Leandro Trossard wasn’t ready at the age of 17 or 18 years old, but he did another pathway and through that pathway he became the star that he is now in Arsenal, but it took longer than Thibaut or even Yannick (Carrasco) so everybody has his own pathway and at a certain moment you can say this is how or why they did it, but it’s about choices, making choices.”
There is little sign of the Genk production line slowing down. While the Under-19 side has enjoyed an impressive run, seeing off the likes of Juventus, to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Youth League, the senior team is flying high at the top of the Belgian League with 21-year-old goalkeeper Maarten Vandevoordt and 18-year-old midfielder Bilal El Khannous among the academy graduates making their mark.
Vandevoordt has already agreed to join Bundesliga side RB Leipzig in 2024 and is the latest exciting goalkeeping talent to emerge at Genk, with plans to further professionalise the goalkeeping side of the academy already in place. The youngest keeper in Champions League history, Vandevoordt was just 17 when he faced Napoli in the 2019/20 group stage, and had established himself as Genk’s number one by the age of 18.
The decision to “go all in for Maarten,” as Daerden puts it, came at a time when many clubs would have surely taken the safer option of bringing in a more experienced keeper.
Bilal El Khannous’ rise has been just as rapid. Having made just one substitute appearance for the senior team before this season, the Belgian-born teenager has not only established himself in the starting lineup of a table-topping Genk side, but has also been fast-tracked into the Moroccan set-up, making his international debut in the World Cup 3rd/4th place play-off against Croatia.
His story also offers a glimpse into Genk’s philosophy and some of the ways they manage the development of young players away from the pitch.
“He received also his diploma from school. He had the discipline to achieve it for himself,” explains Daerden. “Does he need it in the future? Maybe not, but it’s something that we as a club are also investing—look guys don’t quit school too easy, you don’t get things by themself, you need to work for it and school is something very important.
“You never know after two years, maybe you get injured or something like that so those aspects are really important also.”
In time, El Khannouss may become the next Genk academy star to move on to play in a bigger league, but getting that moment right is clearly important for all parties.
“Give them also the opportunity to go when they are ready to go,” says Daerden. “You can see all the players who make a transfer to another team, they are playing in their club so it means that it’s the right time. Not too early, not too soon.
“We think further than only KRC Genk. Also like Thibaut, they are ambassadors, and now the coming players, they are also ambassadors. We need those ambassadors also for the future. And it only works if you work together for the future of the player. That’s our main goal as well.”
It’s a refreshing attitude in the often cutthroat world of academy football where the harsh reality is that most young players will not ultimately be good enough to progress into the first team ranks. At Genk though, it feels as though every young player is given the best possible chance to turn that dream into a reality.
“We really believe in each talent and each player,” Daerden concludes. “If they will succeed, you never know but this is why they are here.”