Toby Alderweireld will be homesick for Belgium until he returns to the country, and the Antwerp area specifically.
The Tottenham Hotspur defender left his hometown and family at the age of fifteen, and has spoken several times about the struggles he then faced.
He moved to Amsterdam to join Ajax’s youth system, and despite it only being a couple of hours away from home, it felt like a world away for the youngster.
Not for the first time, Alderweireld has made it clear he feels football fans have the wrong perception of the life of a professional and how easy it is.
Speaking to Belgian magazine Knack, he explained: “That’s how I thought myself. Wow, I play for Ajax! Until you get on your own on a train to Amsterdam as a fifteen-year-old, and realise what your life will look like from now on. I was not prepared for that. I come from a warm, secure nest. I cycled to school, but when I had to play football, my parents brought me. That protected boy ended up at a school in the Amsterdam Bijlmer. A rugged, multicultural neighbourhood.”
He had slight problems with the language, thought he sounded too Flemish and it all proved too much: “My whole body then said: I do not want this. This is too much for me. Please let me go home.”
Knack put it to the Tottenham player that not going back to Belgium was a victory for him: “True, but you don’t realise that at the time. That feeling of despair, I do not wish on my worst enemy. I still carry that. I felt lost in Amsterdam for years. It diluted, but never passed. Like a little devil that stayed on my shoulder.”
The city of Amsterdam wasn’t the issue, and Alderweireld still feels close to the Netherlands, but if he had the time again he wouldn’t have moved to Ajax at such a young age: “It’s a fantastic club, please don’t get me wrong, but I was too young and not self-sufficient. And I dare think that I would have reached the top via a different route.
“From the age of ten everything had to make way for football. You skip birthday parties, friends get the message that you don’t have time to see them. That leaves traces. And you can’t make up for that. Other people have also made sacrifices for my career. My youngest brother is my best friend. We save one year; when we were young, we did everything together. I fell away overnight. It was hard for him too. I feel guilty about that.”
He’s still a little homesick and it seems clear that when professional football is over for him, Alderweireld will move back home: “In 2019 I will be fifteen years away from home. My nostalgia is much less than the years in Amsterdam, but there is still something missing. Do you know what bothers me? People who complain about Belgium. In Belgium everything is fantastic, except the weather. You can’t enjoy anywhere like this. Good food, drink, freedom. And if you get sick, there is a social safety net. A person lives nowhere better than in Belgium, honestly.”
Knack then put it to the footballer that such a Belgium only really exists if you have money, and that poverty figures ‘do not lie’, to which he replied: “I cannot comment on real poverty, because I did not know it myself. In our family we had to pay attention to the money. My father combined two jobs to raise three sons. He hates this story, but I still often think of the colas my dad treated us to.
“Once a month we went to eat pizza and then we got exactly one cola. Nothing more nothing less. That one cola tasted better than the best champagne. You could drink it in one go or save it over the meal. The day I could afford a second cola, I felt proud: you worked hard and you now earn this, Toby. I’m going to try to give my children that (lesson). A second cola is not obvious.”