World Cup Road Trip, Day 3: An amazing time in Belgium ruined by a thief

Drama on day three. The camera that Martino has cradled and cared for to shoot our wild and wonderful World Cup Road Trip is stolen.

Some loser on the 16.56 train from Belgian capital Brussels to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, specifically the section between Antwerp and Breda, used rush hour to disguise his dickhead behaviour. Amid a throng of people, he unclipped the bag from the overhead storage and took the piece of equipment that was documenting this journey.

Martino realises at Rotterdam. He is distraught. Then he gets angry, raging into the night in Italian after we get off the train to change for our onward trip to Amsterdam.

Thankfully, all is not lost. He had already backed up today’s footage onto one of his hard drives. Insurance will cover the cost. Relief spreads.

We give Martino a hug. He has been a force on this trip, our creator and translator, a pure fan of football who has a social conscience to admire. He’s also very funny.

That humour gradually returns and, ever the professional, he demands we record a video update on our phones. Looking into these lower-quality lenses, he explains the situation with typically fierce intellect and articulation.

We file a police report when we reach Amsterdam, and Martino calmly answers the questions posed by the officer behind the desk, including some curious interrogations into his background. He was born in California, has Italian nationality, and lives in London. “I’m a bureaucratic nightmare,” Martino exhales to lighten the mood.

As we are ready to go, a young French couple walk in. They are upset about a passport being stolen from a friend’s car. The officer is not understanding, in either meaning of the word. She tells them they should not have left the passport in a car – not overly helpful advice – and struggles to understand their questions. Martino steps in to translate, further enhancing his legendary status.

Now the challenge turns to sourcing a replacement camera in time for our interview with Ajax chief executive and former Manchester United and Fulham goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar on Sunday afternoon. Somehow, a couple of iPhones don’t seem like the proper equipment to be walking into that one with.

Our Saturday had started with a crisis of much smaller consequence.

As we eat our pains au chocolat while waiting for the 7.55am train at Paris’ Gare du Nord, Laurie realises he has left his hairspray in London. The quiff will be in danger without structural support for the next 4,000 miles.

The only staying up Nick is worried about, however, concerns his beloved Nottingham Forest. They have a big game against Brentford later and need points to get out of the relegation zone.

There is not long to ruminate though as departure approaches.

Our plan is to get to the Belgian city of Genk to speak to Michel Ribeiro, KRC Genk’s technical coach, who can count Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois, Leandro Trossard and many more elite footballers among the youth players to be educated under him.

The Athletic team with Michel Ribiero at Genk – Laurie’s lack of hairspray is already obvious

The train is packed but at least the wide red seats offer comfort.

A 40-minute changeover in Brussels allows for a brief walk outside and reflections on the last time any of us were in the city.

Laurie covered a 0-0 draw between Belgium and Wales here in November 2014 — a significant result on that Chris Coleman-managed team’s march all the way to the European Championship semi-finals two years later, and also the night when the country’s fans adopted Zombie Nation as an anthem after it played over the stadium speakers at full time.

There is an echo of that trance Europop sound later as Martino bounces along to a song on the radio in the taxi taking us to Genk’s Cegeka Arena, once we have navigated our second train journey of the day. “Finally we’re transitioning into gabber-style music,” he says, elated at the shift in geography.

The cab driver’s name is Diane and she is very welcoming.

Martino begins by speaking French to her but she doesn’t really understand. Her native tongue is Flemish. Her English is good, too. She points out the city’s mining tower that, at the distance, stands proudly over the greenery, and says she doesn’t think Belgium will win this World Cup.

As we pull up to the stadium, we come across three South Koreans taking pictures. It turns out one, Se-Yun, is a football agent for the International Players Agency and used to be a player here at Genk. He is back to take a fresh look around and see if any of his clients might fit in for a transfer.

We are 5,400 miles (nearly 9,000km) from Seoul, but Se-Yun says his old club’s academy is highly regarded in various parts of the globe. “The youth program in Belgium is really impressive, and especially Genk,” he says.

Se-Yun outside Genk’s stadium

That acclaim stands up when set against the stellar list of alumni to come out of what is a club of modest means, based in a place whose population would not fill Wembley.

As well as De Bruyne, Courtois and Trossard there has also been Yannick Carrasco, Divock Origi, Wilfred Ndidi, Christian Benteke and Timothy Castagne, plus others. The current crop are pretty good, too — Genk are 10 points clear at the top of the Belgian Pro League after blowing Charleroi away 4-1 on Friday night.

Michel welcomes us warmly, waiting for us to finish our interview with Se-Yun, and for the next two hours showing us around the facilities while opening up on his thoughts about youth development as academy matches play out on the pitches behind us.

He has spent 17 years at the club as a player and coach, coming back in 2020 after a couple of seasons with Sporting Kansas City of MLS. He was born in a hospital 200 yards from the stadium and, even closer, his father, Jorge, is buried in the cemetery over the wall from the pitches where he used to play and now coaches.

Jorge came here from Portugal to work in the mines and many other immigrants did too — fueling a population where 24 per cent came from 85 different nationalities. Now, people come from around the world for football. The Genk senior squad contains 15 different nationalities, including 10-cap USA international Mark McKenzie, Daniel Munoz, who has played 14 times for Colombia, and Bilal El Khannous, an 18-year-old Moroccan tipped for the top.

Michel speaks seven languages ​​- Flemish, Portuguese, English, French, German, Spanish and Italian – so can converse with all the personalities that come through the club’s doors. He is a compelling character, clapping goals as they go in, greeting all the colleagues and opposition staff who walk past us, saying hello to parents watching on.

There is a point when we walk down the corridor outside the dressing rooms, pictures of academy graduates lining the walls, where people seem to stop him every couple of seconds. It is like that scene in GoodFellas where the camera follows Henry Hill as he enters the Copacobana nightclub and people are drawn to his orbit.

Michel, who seems to have a mischievous side, chuckles at the comparison.

Sigma, a club from Ontario in Canada, are visiting for some friendly youth games. They lose this one, and Michel asks their coach about the experience. “Tough but valuable,” he replies.

We ask Michel about his allegiances at the upcoming World Cup. His heart is Portuguese but all those Genk players in Roberto Martinez’s squad mean he has high hopes for Belgium, too.

The Athletic will run a full feature on him and the Genk setup in due course.

Diane picks us up to take us back to the station and says she will go a different route so we can get a better look at the mining tower.

Martino, always thinking visuals, is elated.

“I am too good for this world,” Diane sings.

Shame not everybody can say the same.

(Main image designed by Sam Richardson)