The port city of Antwerp, Belgium has exported goods all over the world since its construction in 1811, handling tens of thousands of goods every year.
Within the city, a football club has also done its fair share of exporting, aiming for quality over quantity.
FCO Beerschot Wilrijk currently sit top of the Belgian third tier, just one win away from promotion with four games remaining, as the club works their way back up the football pyramid after falling into chaos back in 2013.
Beerschot Wilrijk is a merger of two clubs, KFCO Wilrijk, a former fourth division side, and Beerschot A.C, former two time Belgian Cup Winners and UEFA Cup participants who ceased to exist following liquidation in 2013.
Belgian freelance sports journalist Sven Claes told me that the club ran themselves into financial difficulty, leading to their liquidation and eventual merger.
“They had too many debts. They kept on buying players who they could not afford. When the club went bankrupt, it was a real disaster. The solution? They had to merge with non-professional club Wilrijk. Nowadays they are called Beerschot-Wilrijk. They still have a large fan base of around 12,000 and will be back soon in professional football.”
While the original club no longer exists, a number of their academy products have formed an integral part of Belgium’s ‘golden generation’, continuing the club’s legacy.
As Beerschot struggled to compete with bigger clubs in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, they turned to their academy, forming a partnership with Dutch giants Ajax, a club renowned for producing young players.
Claes believes that the link between the two clubs was a key reason behind the club’s successful production line.
“In the past Beerschot worked together with Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam, who had a partnership of 30% with the Belgian club. That is why Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen moved to The Netherlands at a very young age.”
Vermaelen went on to play for Arsenal and Barcelona, with the defender currently plying his trade for AS Roma in Serie A. The 31-year-old has won 13 major trophies in his career, including the UEFA Champions League during his time in Catalonia.
Alderweireld and Vertonghen both made the move to Premier League Tottenham Hotspur in 2015 and 2012, respectively. The pair have gone on to become two of the best defenders in the division, and arguably the world, playing a crucial role in the club’s emergence as one of the best in England and Europe.
Just in front of the defensive duo lies Mousa Dembélé and Victor Wanyama, forming Spurs’ midfield shield.
Belgian Dembélé played 23 games for Beerschot way back in the 2004/05 season, scoring two goals before moving to Dutch side Willem II, rejecting apparent interest from Ajax in the process. He has since gone on to become one of the most highly regarded midfielders in the English top flight.
Kenyan powerhouse Wanyama had a slightly longer stay at Beerschot, playing 56 times for the Antwerp club across three seasons, finding the back of the net twice. A move to Celtic followed in 2011, impressing for the Scottish giants, convincing Southampton to pay £12.5 million for his services. A move to Tottenham in the summer of 2016 has seen the 25-year-old become a dominant force in the Premier League.
While Beerschot have played a key role in Tottenham’s recent success, AS Roma have also got a lot to thank De Ratten for.
The aforementioned Vermaelen is currently on loan in Rome but their key player, Radja Nainggolan also graduate from Beerschot’s academy.
28-year-old Nainggolan is now widely considered as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in world football, often being linked with a big-money move to the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea but, his roots are in Antwerp.
Born in the city, he joined Beerschot’s academy aged 12, remaining with the club until 2005, when aged 17 he was spotted by Serie B side Piacenza, leaving his hometown for Northern Italy. A move to Cagliari 2010 was followed a transfer to current club Roma, where he has become renowned for his energetic displays and eye for goal, even developing his own tackling technique.
Combined, the six players have amassed 347 international caps and 27 major trophies, with all of the stars a credit to Beerschot and their academy.
Despite the success of their youngster, Claes believe that Beerschot were lucky, finding the players and having the link with Ajax at just the right time, while other Belgian clubs have been able to consistently produce top talent.
“Beerschot had a lot of luck 10 to 15 years ago because their best players could develop further at Ajax. You can’t compare likes of Anderlecht with Beerschot. Anderlecht are one of the best clubs in Belgian football history and are producing big talents every year.”
While the nations ‘golden generation’ may not have secured a trophy on the international stage they have still seen an upturn in the national team’s success.
Claes explains that failings in years gone by encouraging the Belgian FA to invest in youth.
“Belgium didn’t play a big tournament in 12 years between World Cup 2002 and 2014, so they had to do something to change the situation. The Belgian FA started to invest in youth academies and with results, topping the FIFA rankings last year. Hard work and discipline are taught at these academies. Young players also need good points at school otherwise, they can’t play football. They need to focus on both aspects. Education is still very important in Belgium.”
Maybe this is something the English FA can learn from Belgium but, that’s for another time.
It is undeniable that Beerschot produced some of the best talents in world football today and while their decline was tragic, they still have a legacy to live by.
I think we all need to be grateful to Beerschot for the players they have given us and hope that one day they will return to their former glory, starting with a win, the league title and a four successive promotion this Saturday.
So to that, I say, Beerschot Wilrijk, thank you and good luck, we are all rooting for you.