The Great Old becomes the Great Young: how Antwerp’s youth academy is suddenly experiencing a revival
7 de March, 2023
Grandstand 4 is the place where the magic happens. It is there that Antwerp has developed a hypermodern youth complex. The opening took place in June 2021, when Ria and Paul Gheysens handed over the symbolic key to Steven Smet, Head of Training at the RAFC Academy. The facilities? Fifteen changing rooms, an auditorium with 125 seats for information sessions and video analyses, a medical cabinet, homework classes, an indoor running track made of synthetic turf with a length of seventy meters by six meters and its own fitness room. Phew.
Gheysens invested millions in the Antwerp youth work, which was also necessary: Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Racing Genk were light years ahead. However, the potential in a major city like Antwerp is enormous, but that was not exploited. Gheysens wanted to change that, with the emphatic demand that there would be a return in the short term. That is faster than expected, partly due to the high injury burden. Arthur Vermeeren (18), Zeno Van Den Bosch (19), Kobe Corbanie (17), Gerard Vandeplas (17) and Milan Smits (18) already made their debut. The first three names certainly make a good impression.
Mark van Bommel is a coach who is not afraid to put young boys. In the preparation he already made it clear that Vermeeren would certainly get minutes. When Radja Nainggolan had to leave, he did not push for a new midfielder, because he had confidence in Vermeeren’s qualities. The same with Van Den Bosch: Dinis Almeida went to Bulgaria this winter. When Van Bommel was asked if he wanted defensive reinforcements, he said no, because ‘Zeno is gradually ready for it’.
Dressing in containers
The current boom is in stark contrast to what was seen at the Bosuil a few years ago. When Smet – who has a past at Beerschot and Club Brugge – started working at Antwerp in 2016, it was literally plodding in the mud. The players still had to change clothes in containers, the fields were not in good condition and there was often no hot water. But after Gheysens’ electroshock, Antwerp, which wants to see more of its own trained players move on to the first team in the coming seasons, is working very professionally in the youth field. There are talent days, former professionals such as Gill Swerts, Stef Wils and Maxime Biset in the framework, a partnership with the top sports school in Wilrijk, study coaches and homework supervisors and collaborations with regional clubs.
In concrete terms, Antwerp does not want to miss out on any promising player from the province. That is not obvious, because Anderlecht and Club Brugge are lurking, but it helps that there is now a clear vision and a good (infra) structure. RAFC does not immediately have the ambition to also recruit ‘in the parking lot’, although it goes without saying that the youth scouts keep their eyes open for any opportunities. For example, Noa Wyns (20), who sat on the bench on Sunday, has a past at Union. Vermeeren and Van Den Bosch come closer: the midfielder previously played for KV Mechelen, Van Den Bosch came over from Lierse at the time.
For Smet and Gheysens’ project, these guys are a godsend. Although Antwerp does not want to play Vermeeren as a billboard, he is living proof that you can get opportunities as a youngster with the number one. It only makes the childhood story stronger.