When thinking about football in Belgium you would be forgiven if Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liege come to mind.
Combined, these three clubs have won more than half of the Belgian championships contested, but in 2018/19 their stranglehold was temporarily broken by Genk, who rarely find their name mentioned in the powerhouse conversation.
The Smurfs’ win in 2018/19 was just the fourth time they had lifted the Belgian First Division A since the club’s inception in 1988. Indeed, they are only the joint ninth-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 in the past 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 makes 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 6’6″ 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. Since making that move Courtois hasn’t done too badly, winning two league titles and the Champions League with a man-of-the-match performance in the final against Liverpool.
Right-back: Timothy Castagne
Genk appearances: 99
Current club: Leicester City
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 proved a competent outlet, featuring 75 times in Serie A under Gian Piero Gasperini to help them become regulars in the top four and Champions League. Castagne’s performances did not go unnoticed, and he earned a move to the Premier League with Leicester two years ago, winning the FA Cup in his debut campaign while featuring on both sides of the defence and through the middle.
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. He has featured prominently for Watford in the Championship this season in their efforts to get back up to the top flight.
Centre-Back: Kalidou Koulibaly
Genk appearances: 92
Current club: Chelsea
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 has been named as one of the best defenders in Europe over the past six or seven years, with his hulking frame combining with a refined ball-playing ability — and while that is decreasing as he ages, the 31-year-old still boasts a lot of quality. That’s exactly why Chelsea spent £33m on him last summer.
Left-back: Joakim Maehle
Genk appearances: 130
Current club: Atalanta
Maehle announced himself to the wider world at Euro 2020, being a big part of the impressive Denmark side that reached the semi-finals with attacking football, but Genk fans will have been all too familiar with his quality. The wing-back spent four years at Genk having joined from Danish side Aalborg and was part of their title-winning team in 2018/19, playing 39 times across the campaign. His performances were good enough to attract the attention of Atalanta, who signed him in January 2021, starting his launch to the world stage as they contested Champions League football. He remains a pivotal part of Gasperini’s set-up.
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 over the years, including 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 26-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 has made more tackles than Ndidi in the Premier League since his debut in January 2017 (601), with the Nigerian holding a lead of 154 over second-placed Declan Rice.
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Right-wing: Yannick Carrasco
Genk appearances: 0
Current club: Atlético Madrid
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 Belgium at international level, while he is now back at Atletico Madrid after a spell with Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang between 2018 and 2020.
Left-wing: Leon Bailey
Genk appearances: 77
Current club: Aston Villa
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 after tearing it up in the Bundesliga for Bayer Leverkusen, the Jamaican is now in the Premier League with Aston Villa.
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: Leandro Trossard
Genk appearances: 120
Current club: Arsenal
Although not technically an out-and-out striker, the versatile winger has appeared there quite regularly this season, particularly for Arsenal since his move from Brighton in January. Such positional flexibility perhaps serves best to underline Trossard’s capabilities, who is malleable enough to play pretty much anywhere across the frontline and even at wing-back.
Before he became the mid-season adrenaline shot in Arsenal’s 2022/23 Premier League title bid, he was starring for Brighton, who picked him up from Genk in 2019. Having risen through the ranks in Limburg, where he helped the club win that famous title in 2018/19, a move to one of Europe’s top divisions beckoned
And he is now hoping to bring some of that title-winning success to north London.
Mathew Ryan (AZ Alkmaar), Ruslan Malinovskyi (Marseille), Sander Berge (Sheffield United), Divock Origi (AC Milan), Ianis Hagi (Rangers), Christian Benteke (D.C. United).