The night of December 10, 2019 was meant to be one of celebration for Maarten Vandevoordt, his family and those who had seen him rise through the ranks at Genk.
With the club’s two senior goalkeepers missing through injury, Vandevoordt was named in the starting XI to face Napoli, becoming the youngest keeper to ever appear in the Champions League in the process.
Aged 17 years and 287 days, though, Vandevoordt’s lack of experience soon turned what was meant to be a dream night into a nightmare.
After just 125 seconds in Naples, the teenager was picking the ball out of his net, and was entirely to blame for it being there.
Noted for his ability with the ball at his feet throughout his time in the Genk academy, Vandevoordt attempted a Cruyff-turn inside his own penalty area, only to be robbed of the ball as Arkadiusz Milik tapped into the empty goal.
Things did not improve from there, with Napoli running out 4-0 winners as Milik completed his hat-trick before half-time after Vandevoordt conceded a penalty.
Given the record-breaking nature of his appearance, Vandevoordt’s blunder made headlines around the world, and such scrutiny would have broken a number of players of his age.
However, the signs for Vandevoordt are that his display in southern Italy will instead be the making of him, with the Belgian now emerging as one of the most promising young goalkeepers in world football.
“I quickly got over that mistake. I think I came out of this whole story stronger mentally,” Vandevoordt, who was the only goalkeeper named on the 2021 NXGN list of the 50 best teenage footballers in the world back in March, told HLN three months on from his Napoli ordeal.
“I now know what to do better and differently. I will never take such a risk again. If I could turn back time, I would kick the ball away immediately.
“Everyone makes mistakes. Unfortunately, those of the goalkeepers are always magnified.”
Fortunately for Vandevoordt, those mistakes are now far fewer and further between, with the teenager well established as Genk’s true No.1.
Given the club he plays for, as well as his tall, slim stature, comparisons have been made to Thibaut Courtois, with Belgium fans hopeful that Vandevoordt will prove to be a true successor to the Real Madrid star as the Red Devils’ long-term goalkeeper.
His style of goalkeeping, however, is more akin to the modern ‘sweeper-keepers’, with Vandevoordt himself citing Manuel Neuer as his idol.
Perhaps such a style should not be surprising given that Vandevoordt was not originally brought to Genk to play between the sticks.
Despite growing up on the same street as ex-Liverpool shot-stopper Simon Mignolet in Sint-Truiden, it was Vandevoordt’s technique while playing outfield that first alerted Genk’s scouts to him at his local club, Brustem VV.
He was enrolled into the Genk academy at the age of nine, but it would be another half-decade before the decision was made for him to become a permanent goalkeeper.
Genk’s training methods are such that every player gets their turn in goal, with the club’s youth coaches more keen on improving a youngster’s ball skills in their early years with the club, and as such Vandevoordt spent more time playing outfield during his early years with the four-time Belgian champions.
“Every now and then I was allowed to play in goal, and that turned out to be a success,” he told Nieuwsblad. “It suited me like a glove that keepers in Genk training have to play a lot of football. In training, but also during the matches.
“That also teaches you to read the game better and to have comfort on the ball. Of course, I have to pay more attention now, as every mistake is counted much more heavily. But this is my way of goalkeeping.”
When Vandevoordt was eventually given the chance to play full matches as a keeper, he could still be seen standing almost 40 yards out of his goal at times as he did his best to offer an option in possession to his team-mates.
By the age of 15, he was training with the first-team squad, and would regularly be seen staying late to join in with free-kick and penalty practice – taking them, rather than saving them.
His overconfidence on his European debut should not, then, have come as much of a surprise, with the past two years having been about channelling that so as to avoid any further catastrophic errors.
Vandevoordt was actually meant to take over as Genk No.1 in the months that followed his infamous night in Naples, but an elbow injury suffered in February 2020 saw him miss the remainder of the campaign, and he would have to wait a full 12 months before finally becoming the permanent starter.
He celebrated by saving two penalties in the league and winning the Belgian Cup before the end of the 2020-21 campaign, with his form over the past six months or so having seen the teenager step up to become the undisputed starter for Belgium Under-21s.
Liverpool, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Roma are just some of the clubs that are reportedly monitoring Vandevoordt too, and though his contract at Genk still has 20 months to run on it, a move to one of Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues looks inevitable at some point.
That is mainly due to Vandevoordt’s ability as the ideal 21st-century goalkeeper.
But the mental resolve he has shown since December 2019 is perhaps what makes him stand out the most compared to his peers.
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