Remco Evenepoel has won the 2022 Vuelta a España. In next Thursday’s Cycling Weekly magazine (Sept 22), we are publishing an in-depth feature exploring untold stories of his final years as a footballer and his first two years as a cyclist. Before he turned pro as a cyclist, he played football in his youth, playing for Belgium's U15 and U16 teams.
Here is an extended version of an extract from the article, focusing solely on Evenepoel's years as a footballer.
You can read the Making of Remco in Cycling Weekly, on sale September 22.
There’s one thing you ought to know about Remco Evenepoel the footballer: he was not a world-beater. “I don’t really have a recollection of Remco being a man of the match because he was not the most decisive player,” his longtime coach Stéphane Stassin reveals. “He was technically gifted but not one of the most technically gifted.”
That’s not to say, however, that Evenepoel - a defensive midfielder who could also operate at left-back - was a expendable figure. In fact, it was quite the opposite - he was the first name on the team sheet, whether turning out for the youth teams of RSC Anderlecht, PSV Eindhoven or the Belgian national team from the ages of 5 to 16.
Zorhan Bassong, who was part of the same youth team set-up at Anderlecht as Evenepoel, recalls how, aged 15 or 16, Evenepoel was sidelined with a knee injury. “When he was out, you could see directly that the team weren’t playing as well on the field,” the Canadian, now playing for CF Montréal in the MLS, tells Cycling Weekly.
“That wasn’t because of his talent - he was talented, but there were better guys - but because of the energy he brought to the field, his voice, his leadership. The team was more confident when he was around.
“He wouldn’t shout ‘do this, do that’ to his teammates, but he brought this positive energy. He had this natural confidence of just standing on the pitch and making everyone around him feel secure, more safe. From his body language people would see a naturally confident guy. The whole team knew that when he was there, it would be different.”
Evenepoel was good on the ball, possessed a good left foot and was a frequent taker of set-pieces. But he was the de-facto captain wherever he played for his leadership traits, not because of his ball-playing attributes.
“There are many types of captain,” Stassin, youth team coach at Anderlecht, says. “You can be a captain on the pitch, a captain in the dressing room, and in older ages you’re also the coach’s right hand. But that’s not easy with youth teams because there are age differences and they’re so young.
“Remco, however, was the exception: he was effectively the right hand of the coach and talked to his teammates. When I asked him to do something, sometimes he would say that he had already talked with his teammates and arranged what was needed. He really had leadership qualities on and off the pitch.”
These characteristics were clearly inherited from his parents, his hairdresser mother Agna and former pro cyclist and plasterer father Patrick. “If Remco was the captain of the team, his parents were the captain of the parents,” Stassin laughs. “They always tried to organise stuff and tried to bring everyone together.”
Evenepoel began his footballing days as a goalkeeper, but his stamina meant that his first coach moved him into midfield. He was first a playmaker, operating in a number 10 position, but was then pushed back into more of a number 8 or 6 role.
He played for Anderlecht until he moved to PSV aged 11. Sporting blonde, floppy hair, Evenepoel and his father made the 180km round trip most days from Brussels, but he returned home to Anderlecht aged 14. He once again went to school at the Sint-Godelieve Institute, where he studied science, economics and languages alongside his other footballing teammates.
“He was a really, really nice guy,” Michiel de Looze remembers. “What you see on TV is what he was like in front of a group. He takes responsibility and always talks well. He wants results, is a leader and has it within him.”
Schoolyard chatter was what can be expected - “we were 14 and 15 so there were lots of talks about girls,” De Looze smiles - but Evenepoel was always keen to stay focused on the wider pursuit of chasing the football dream. “It was never s**t talk with Remco,” De Looze says. “He was always talking about sports, training, other players, and what his goals were. A lot of football chat.”
De Looze recalls Evenepoel leading a disciplined life as a teenager. “We had long hours, starting school at 8.30am and then not getting home from training until 9pm,” he reflects. “It wasn’t easy as we were always so busy, but Remco was so focused. He was always watching his food, and doing whatever it took to get results.”
In Cycling Weekly’s Making of Remco feature (on sale Sept 15), De Looze and others reveal several previously untold anecdotes of Evenepoel thriving in endurance challenges.
His aim was always to be the fittest. “In pre-season he would cycle to training in 30 degrees, and it was a long and hilly trip for him,” says De Looze, who now plays in Belgium’s third division with FC Knokke. “I remember one time he came into training with his lycra and his football clothes in his bag and we were like, ‘what the heck, Remco!’”
Evenepoel the football fan
In April, Evenepoel spoke to Cycling Weekly about his fandom of RSC Anderlecht. "I'd play on the Saturday or Sunday morning, and then in the afternoon I'd go to watch the game with my father or friends," he remembers. "I didn't have posters on my wall, but I was always saving YouTube videos on my iPad to watch. I was so busy with football. A bit of school, but more football.
“I'd go more [to matches] with my dad in the past, but nowadays it's more with my friends. We park up, walk to the stadium, buy a bag of candy, watch the game, buy a coke, go take a piss at half time in the big restrooms and then take another drink. When we score a goal we go nuts."
He pauses, and then laughs, when asked if he's one for singing the club's chants. "I used to!" he chuckles. "But the problem now is that when you're more known, everybody is looking at you, so it's going to be strange when you're there and singing like a mad man! But when we score I jump and cheer, but I don't sing anymore. The last time I was at a game I was sitting with the CEOs of Anderlecht so it would have been strange to behave like a superfan!"
He was desperate to do whatever it took to fulfil his sporting dreams, as Stassin recollects: “Left-footed players tend to have more difficulties with their right foot but Remco was really focused on that, and in training was always trying to improve his right foot even when the coaches said it was time to rest.
“He always wanted to make sure that he improved and that there was [still] a lot of progression in him. It was in his character to want to do everything as well as he could.
“He wanted to take all the penalties and free-kicks, and would run to the corner kicks even if he was the player that had to stay back [to defend]. He always tried to be everywhere on the pitch and [be the one] doing everything.
“That’s obviously a leadership quality but if you go into the older teams, it’s sometimes a bit more about tactics and you have to respect the positions a bit more, maybe stay back when other players are going ahead. This was something he had to learn because he always wanted to be everywhere on the pitch which is not possible.”
Sebastiaan Bornauw, who is a regular in Germany’s Bundesliga with VfL Woflsburg, tells this magazine’s about “two crazy stories” that made him realise “that Remco was not only a special guy, but a footballer who loved performing in other sports.”
Bornauw says: “He was good on the ball, but his strongest points were his physicality and mentality.”
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Aged 15, Evenepoel suffered a fracture to his pelvis. He lay in agony on the pitch, but refused to be substituted. Despite part of the bone protruding through his skin, he raged against his eventual withdrawal.
Two years later, as a 17-year-old cyclist racing outside of Belgium for the first time, he broke his nose and was hospitalised. When his father came to collect him, that same competitiveness was there. “He was pleading with his dad,” says Patrick Verschueren, then manager of the Forte Young team. “He did not want to go home.”
That injury prompted the start of his extraordinary, rapid progression as a cyclist; conversely, his football injury was to signal the beginning of the end of his dreams of becoming a footballer.
He would not add to his nine appearances for Belgium’s U15 and U16 teams, and soon fell out of favour at Anderlecht, his lack of speed cited as an issue. “This was quite tough on him mentally because he always wanted to be the best,” Stassin admits. “It was difficult for him.”
In an interview last winter with DeMorgen, Evenepoel was still bitter about his exit from his boyhood club. He said: “I felt at home at Anderlecht for a long time - until the end. I didn’t get any more opportunities to play, and I never got a decent explanation. That was heavy to bear.”
Upon being released by Anderlecht at the end of 2016, Evenepoel signed for KV Mechelen who were prepared to offer him a professional contract six months down the line. But as Evenepoel told DeMorgen: “That seemed far away in what was a mentallty difficult period for me. It made me suddenly say ‘f**k’ to football.”
With that decision, his football career ended and his journey to perennial winner of cycling races began. But Evenepoel has not fully departed from football, telling Cycling Weekly earlier this year that he still watches as many Anderlecht games as he can from his laptop, while his father still attends most home games.
Having played and trained with multiple players who have gone onto achieve great promise, such as Leicester’s Youri Tielemans, Chelsea’s Michy Batshuayi, AC Milan’s Alexis Saelemakers and Arsenal’s Albert Sambi Lokonga, Evenepoel still has his pulse on his first love. Indeed, his compatriot Eden Hazard, who plays for Real Madrid, even sent him a message after his horror crash at the 2020 Il Lombardia.
His footballing career never panned out the way he had envisaged, but Evenepoel left a lasting impression. “He didn’t do so many decisive actions and he also didn’t score many goals,” Stassin summarises. “But he was the one who really put in the effort - not a match winner but a leader on the pitch.”
To read the Making of Remco, an extensive, in-depth look at Evenepoel’s journey from footballer to cyclist with previously never-before-heard stories, buy Cycling Weekly on sale Thursday, September 22.
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