“Ajax Amsterdam's De Toekomst, Barcelona’s La Masia, and Real Madrid’s La Fabrica, I’m telling you, folks, as far as football is concerned, these are some of Europe’s finest youth factories, maybe the best ever” Brown concluded, taking the last sip of what was left in his glass.
“I think Genk are worthy of a mention.”
‘You think what?” Brown queried!
“I mean -Tejwani starts- they’re not up there with the big boys but if you want my two cents on this one, I’m going to tell you for free; they’ve consistently produced some of the finest footballers on the continent, and it’s sickening that their success with youth doesn’t reflect in the club’s overall status on the pyramid of European football”
In his early twenties, Tejwani -a hopeless football romantic and a neutral one at that- had spent six years in Northern Belgium, and in that time, the Indian immigrant followed every paragraph in the extraordinary ascent of rising starlets Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne, but it was the upward trajectory of the future Wolfsburg and Manchester City star player that fascinated him more.
The problem with Genk, Tejwani realized, was that the Jupiler league club did not share the same status as Ajax, Barcelona, Real Madrid or even Celta Vigo and as such, only slipped into the news when one of its pupils was involved in a big money move, or developed into World class material.
A clear example would be Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne. The Belgian had emerged through Drongen and Gent in the early 2000s, but it was at KRC Genk, with the help of youth coach Frank De Leyn and Franky Vercauteren (Genk's head coach 2009-2011) that the ginger-haired attacking machine forged a reputation for himself as a "delight to watch"
"My dear Brown" Tejwani continued
"Let me tell you something about the most creative player in the Premier League"
"You can" Brown replied swiftly..... "But I'm going to need a bottle of beer to wash down these steaks just so they don't clog up my listening process"
"A bottle of beer for the gentleman please" Tejwani echoed, taking off his glasses and continuing his narrative.
"The legendary Dutch footballer and manager Johan Cruyff -who preached Total Voetbal and helped mentor arguably the best manager in the game as we speak- believed that "playing simple football was the hardest thing ever" and while one of his pupils, Josep Guardiola, would go on to establish himself as a preacher and enthusiast of "simple football", Kevin De Bruyne, a straight-talking strongwilled Belgian kid who probably never met Cruyff in person, would evolve into a living embodiment of "the art of simple football"
"If Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then the Drongen enigma is the simplest definition of the word itself.
"There are players who state "winning trophies" as the reason for handing in transfer requests, but as 14-year old with a box of tricks, the Belgian decided to make the 100-mile switch from Drongen to Gent. His reason? "the training on the other side was much better"
"People love it where the grass is greener, don't they? " Brown asked
"Well," Tejwani said "The way I see it, it's not always about the grass, sometimes, it's more about hunger and relentless preparation for what's coming. The Gods will offer you chances, know them, take them. There's no shame in that"
"He spent a few years in the North-Belgian region of Gent before a clash of personalities forced him to join rivals Genk.
"Gent? Genk? What's the difference? What is wrong with these people?" Brown interrupted
Tejwani, who wasn't ignorant of Brown's devices, continued
"At Genk, as is common with most starlets, it didn't take long for Kevin to break into the first team and become a vital cog in De Smurfen's wheel, but more than "what he could do with the ball at his feet", it was his obsession with winning, and his ability to bring out the best in his teammates, that made him an invaluable asset to the Jupiler side.
"If he broke into the first team so early, he must have exploded in his first full season with the club" Brown suggested
"Unfortunately, he didn't" Tejwani replied and continued
"In his debut season at Genk, the club struggled like never before, flirting with relegation and almost jeopardizing their Jupiler Pro League status, but once they survived, The Smurfs took the league by storm in 2010/11 and it was Kevin De Bruyne's five goals and sixteen assists that helped shape the club's fortunes as they won their third championship.
"Five goals and sixteen assists?" Brown interrupted again "I'm telling you brother I could have done better except the Gods didn't want me to born as a plucky playmaker in this incarnation"
"Yea I know man" Tejwani laughed "But would you have progressed to inspire great success at Werder Bremen, Wolfsburg and Manchester City the way Kevin did?
"Rather than distribute passes and dictate play in the middle of the park, you probably would have pursued skirts and increased the demand for contraceptives in Germany"
"I decline to answer, I'll have to speak with my lawyer first," Brown said with a blank expression on his face."
Navabi had been quiet all along, paying attention to Tejwani's narrative, but there was still a flash of curiosity about De Bruyne's ability to strike the ball so well with his weaker foot. Something about his ambipedal mastery that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up.
So for the first time that evening, she spoke
"Tej, I've seen the enigmatic Belgian launch 40-yard passes and drive outside-the-box screamers with his left-foot, this doesn't come naturally does it?"
"For some maybe it does" Tejwani replied, noticing that Brown was ogling the lady on the next table. Shaking his head and smiling, he continued anyway
"But for Kevin, I've read something about how he honed his weaker foot in a garden"
"His parents were worried about the damage he was doing to their plant pots with his right-footed bullets, so on the condition that he only used his weaker foot when training in their cherished back garden, Anna and Herwig De Bruyne struck a deal with their football-obsessed son."
"I believe it was there that he started getting as comfortable on the ball with his left as he was with his right foot."
"Hmmmmmn. Besides helping Manuel Pellegrini's Manchester City reach the Semi-final in 2016 and striking the ball so well against PSG to set up a last-four meeting with Real Madrid, I don't think he's done much in the UEFA Champions League, did he ever play with The Smurfs in the competition?", Navabi inquired.
"I think he did," Brown to Tejwani's surprise, answered and said what he remembered about Genk's Champions League campaign in 2011/12.
"Kevin De Bruyne's remarkable performances helped KRC Genk reach the Champions League group stages in 2011 and although draws to Chelsea, Valencia and Leverkusen and three defeats away from home condemned the Belgians to an early exit, it was at that point, that Chelsea decided to pay for his services."
"Maybe my memory's a little bit hazy, but I don't think they've made it back to Europe's top tier since Kevin left the Luminus Arena."
"They haven't," Tejwani said.
"They've made it to the Europa League about twice or so, but their fans have had to wait for the much-anticipated return to the Champions League group stages. One wonders what would have happened if Genk had managed to hold onto De Bruyne and the others a little longer."
"It's not just De Bruyne?", Navabi asked.
"Real Madrid's Thibaut Courtois, Lazio's Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly, Leicester City's Wilfred Ndidi, Crystal Palace's Christian Benteke and Bayer Leverkusen's Leon Bailey all passed through Genk, it's just heartbreaking that we never really got to see them play alongside Kevin."
"Maybe in their next life, they'll all incarnate as Arsenal players and bring back the glory days with Andre Villas-Boas as head coach, but right now, in this life, this very moment, my brain tells me I need eight-hours of uninterrupted sleep" Brown concluded, finished his drink and stood up as the three left The Royal Dyche, a pub on the streets of Yorkshire renamed after Burnley manager Sean Dyche, following The Clarets' Europa League qualification in 2018.
As they drove home, Navabi gave her two cents.
"Jorginho is to Maurizio Sarri, what Kevin De Bruyne is to Josep Guardiola, but during those formative years when Belgian football wasn't at its best, it was at KRC Genk, that the first chapter of KDB's bewitching ascent to the summit was written"
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