When thinking about football in Belgium you would be forgiven if Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liege come to mind.
These three clubs combined have won more than half of the Belgian championships contested, but heading into the 2019/20 campaign neither one of them were defending champions, that honour belonged to Genk, who rarely found their name mentioned in the powerhouse conversation.
The Smurfs won the Belgian First Division A title last season for only the fourth time since the club’s inception in 1988.
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Indeed, they are only the joint 11th-most successful club in Belgian First Division A history, with their achievements dwarfed by the aforementioned trident of clubs.
Despite this, they’ve not been adverse to boasting some fine talent in recent times – world class in some departments.
Had they managed to retain their star players this last decade alone, not only would they have challenged the established order in Belgium more regularly, but they may have even caused considerable noise in Europe as well.
Genk’s illustrious alumni make for an extraordinary starting XI, so let’s take a look at how they could have lined up…
Goalkeeper: Thibaut Courtois
Genk appearances: 45
Current club: Real Madrid
The Bree-born goalkeeper started out as a left-back during his formative years in the Genk academy before eventually taking his position between the sticks. Since that positional switch, the 6 ft 6 in goalkeeper has gone on to establish himself as one of Europe’s finest shot-stoppers, first being snapped up by Chelsea in 2011, before starring in three consecutive loan spells with Atletico Madrid and then later joining bitter rivals Real Madrid in the summer of 2018.
Right-wing-back: Timothy Castagne
Genk appearances: 99
Current club: Atalanta
The versatile right-back is another to have emerged from the club’s esteemed production line, rising to prominence in 2014/15 for the Smurfs before Atalanta signed him in 2017. For the Goddess, Castagne has proven a component outlet, featuring 28 times in Serie A last season as Gian Piero Gasperini guided his side to third and a first ever Champions League appearance this term.
Centre-Back: Christian Kabasele
Genk appearances: 81
Current club: Watford
After spells at Eupen, Mechelen and Ludogorets Razgrad, Kabasele settled on Genk in 2014 where he quickly emerged as a leading talent at the back for the Belgian club, which ultimately prompted interest from across Europe. Such was his form in the Belgian First Division A that Watford decided to make him a Premier League player after just two years at the Luminus Arena, and he has since gone on to form an important part of the Hornets’ backline.
Centre-Back: Kalidou Koulibaly
Genk appearances: 92
Current club: Napoli
Signed for a modest fee from Metz in 2012, Koulibaly enjoyed two extremely fruitful years with Genk before Napoli pillaged the club’s ranks in 2014. The sturdy centre-back is currently one of the best defenders in Europe, with his hulking frame combining with a refined ball-playing ability – only Marcelo Brozovic (2271) made more successful passes in Serie A last season than Koulibaly (2229).
Left-wing-back: Yannick Carrasco
Genk appearances: 0
Current club: Atlético Madrid (on loan from Dalian Yifang)
Before Genk even had a chance to unleash Carrasco in the Belgian First Division A, Monaco managed to snap up the precocious tyro in 2010, where his burgeoning reputation accelerated and he soon found himself playing week-in-week-out at the Stade Louis II.
His form caught the attention of Diego Simeone in 2015, who parted with around £20m for his services and he immediately made him an integral part of his Los Colchoneros XI. His versatility has also been indispensable for Roberto Martinez at international level, while he is currently back at Atlético Madrid on loan from Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang.
Central midfield: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic
Genk appearances: 24
Current club: Lazio
The Spanish-born Serbian enjoyed only a brief sojourn at Genk before moving on to pastures new, appearing just 24 times for the club in 2014/15 prior to Lazio tabling an offer for his services. At the Stadio Olimpico, Milinkovic-Savic has surfaced as one of the most talented central midfielders across the continent, and has sparked admiration from a number of European heavyweights, including reported interest from Manchester United.
Central midfield: Wilfred Ndidi
Genk appearances: 83
Current club: Leicester City
Ndidi joined Genk at 16 after impressing at a tournament in Lagos, Nigeria, and it wouldn’t be long before the now 22-year-old was soon making his first appearance for the club’s senior side. He started out as a centre-back but was soon converted into a midfielder, which would certainly explain why the Foxes’ enforcer is such a master in the art of defending – no player won more successful tackles than Ndidi in the Premier League last season (99).
Right-wing: Divock Origi
Genk appearances: 0
Current club: Liverpool
Liverpool’s Champions League cult hero was another like Carrasco who rose through the ranks, but left before making a first-team appearance. He was prised away by Lille at just 15, rejecting apparent overtures from Manchester United in the process. At the Stade Pierre-Mauroy he made rapid progress which encouraged the Reds to pick him up in 2014, where he has gone on to etch his name in Anfield folklore after his Champions League semi-final and final exploits last term.
Left-wing: Leon Bailey
Genk appearances: 77
Current club: Bayer Leverkusen
Bailey joined Genk from Slovakian side Trencin in 2015 and it would become clear from the moment he arrived that the Smurfs had a special talent on their hands. Genk has certainly proven a hot bed for emerging starlets over the years, but credit must also go to the scouting department, who have unearthed numerous hidden gems in recent seasons. Bailey’s maiden campaign saw him clinch the Belgian Young Professional Footballer of the Year award and he is now tearing it up in the Bundesliga for Bayer Leverkusen.
Central attacking midfield: Kevin De Bruyne
Genk appearances: 113
Current club: Manchester City
Arguably the pick of the bunch, De Bruyne has gone from strength to strength since bursting onto the scene and is now Pep Guardiola’s playmaker grandmaster at the Etihad. His rapid rise with Genk made Chelsea return to the Luminus Arena to snap up another of the club’s fledgling talents, though he wasn’t quite able to make the grade in west London and soon parted for Wolfsburg in 2014.
At the Volkswagen Arena, the Belgian started to demonstrate the kind of form that prompted the Blues to sign him in the first place, but it would be a different shade of blue who would next enjoy De Bruyne’s otherworldly passing range, with Man City signing him for £55m in 2015 – that now looks an absolute snip.
Striker: Christian Benteke
Genk appearances: 47 (two spells)
Current club: Crystal Palace
He may not be lighting it up at present, but there was a time when Benteke was one of the most feared strikers in the Premier League. He, in fact, spent his formative years at Genk but didn’t last long as Standard Liege encouraged him to relocate to the Stade Maurice Dufrasne.
Unfortunately for Benteke, he hardly got a look in at his new club and soon rejoined Genk where his exceptional goalscoring form took him to the Premier League with Aston Villa. Having shone for the Villans, Liverpool signed him in 2015 and he now plies his trade at Selhurst Park.
Mathew Ryan (Brighton), Sebastien Pocognoli (Union SG), Steven Defour (Antwerp), Leandro Trossard (Brighton).