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Vermaelen: a lion from Flanders

By Walter Broeckx

Some people may have been surprised by the way Thomas Vermaelen has settled in so quickly after joining The Arsenal this summer.

Vermaelen was highly rated in Amsterdam as captain from Ajax but in the international football world wasn’t a big name. So there has been a lot of doubters amongst the Gooners specially when it turned out that he wasn’t the 9 foot tall CB they hoped for.

But then he came and he did what he did in his first opening games. He slotted in with the team, his teammates and produced very good things. Being from the same region as Vermaelen, Antwerp(en), I’m maybe a little bit biased but then again I can see his mistakes sometimes and his faults so I’m not going to make him a demi-god or anyhthing.

But Thomas Vermaelen is a real product of what could have happened if in 1830 our countries (Belgium and Holland) hadn’t split up. In Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, we always have had a kind of underdog position and never stood up for ourselves.

For example when Belgium started, Dutch wasn’t an official language, although the majority speak Dutch, and it took more than 100 years before Flemish kids could go to university in their own language because Dutch wasn’t supposed to be fit for higher education.

So Thomas also had that kind of background, not big in words but a low profile quiet boy from Flanders. But then because of his footballing qualities he got spotted by Ajax. Up north he went and because in Holland they have louder voices than in Flanders – one of the differences between Flanders and Holland – he felt he should speak more for himself if he wanted to succeed.

And so he did, and he ultimately became the captain of Ajax. Still not very outspoken but one who was listened to when he spoke – despite his youth. He became the man who regulated things in the defense of Ajax.

Because of our background in Flanders we pay a lot of attention to learning foreign languages. Antwerp is an important harbour in Europe so we meet a lot of people from the whole world and we always try our best to answer people in their own language.

So like all Flemish kids Thomas learned English, French and some German to in school. If his colleagues in defense speak French it is no problem for Thomas because he understands French and normally should be able to speak French, if he paid enough attention at school that is.

He also speaks English as you all could see in his interviews so he can speak with his other teammates who don’t speak French. Thanks to this he, and most Flemish people, can adapt quickly in a foreign country. And so it seems to be no problem for Vermaelen to talk with his teammates and to talk with the press. In fact when you speak to persons from his and my background it is clear that Thomas speaks another language: “ Antwerps” which is Dutch spoken with an Antwerp tongue. We consider it to be the official language of Flanders but that is a thought which isn’t followed by the other Flemish people. I really don’t know why……

So far for his background and now that he is doing so well in his first games he also shows our character in a way and it makes us in Flanders proud that he is doing so well. Our philosophy is hard work, not moaning, show your courage, be brave, just do your best every day and work as hard as you can. Fight like a lion.

Thomas is showing this and it is for the first time since ages that a local Flemish boy is playing in one of the top teams in the world, and the best part of it is that he just is delivering the goods. I’m sure he will mess up on occasion, he’s human, but he knew the critics were waiting to write him off and he stood up and proved them wrong.

If you see, in the not too distant future a person entering the Emirates with a yellow flag with a black lion on it (the official flag of Flanders), it could be me to show my support to our local Flemish kid who made it to the top.

By the way if it would have been Dembele which would have been bought then I could almost write a story of a boy from round the corner as his parents live around the corner from my brother.

Walter Broeckx

I also welcome articles from readers – I’m sorry I am not able to publish all of them, but do consider each item sent in. If you are interested in writing, send in a short summary of the idea, and I’ll come back to you. Tony

38 comments to Vermaelen: a lion from Flanders

  • Marc

    Walter – It’s nice to have a piece that gives an outside perspective or at least a non English one.

    My default position is that Wenger knows what he is doing, therefore there are times when Arsenal will spend anywhere between £100,000 and a couple of million on a player that can be considered a calculated gamble, sometimes they work sometimes they don’t but Wenger’s balance sheet justifies his actions. Wenger had never spent £8 million plus on a central defender, I therefore had very high hopes for Vermaelen. I am pleased to pass comment that Vermaelen has so far exceeded my expectations by a huge margin. Long may it continue.

  • Aaditya

    When we got Vermaelen, I told my friends (sarcastically) that I was disappointed as Wenger, the supreme exalted being of the universe, should have got somebody who was at least as good as Vidic with 10mil, given his ability to find talent. I’m forced to eat my words as, Vermaelen is not as good as Vidic, he is light years ahead. And 4 years younger.

  • Marc

    Aaditya – Not only is Vermaelen 4 years younger than Vidic but Vidic’s contract runs out next summer, this will allow him to sign a pre contract with another club (non PL) in January. Given the recent rumours of Vidic’s desire to leave ManU they may have lost the chance to cash in on a player who will be able to leave on a free next summer. On top of this they have Giggs, Neville, Van der Saar and Scholes near (at) the end of thier career’s and Ferdinand becoming increasingly injury prone.

    They could find themselves needing to add 5 players next summer with a limited transfer budget.

  • TheSKAGooner

    Very nice article, Walter. And good insight into Thomas’ makeup as a Flemish person (nice explanation too of the language thing and split with Holland). With the fighting spirit his background brings, he’s doing himself, Flanders and The Arsenal proud with his performance on the pitch and we’re thrilled to have him.

  • Ken

    I know it’s only two games so far but I can’t help feeling really excited about our propects in this season. I was thinking about our new 4-3-3 formation and our young midfielders in particular and then it struck me that maybe we have struck gold. I’m not sure whether my thoughts are really justified or just fancy thinking but ifanyone would care to comment, it would be very much appreciated. Basically, what came to my mind was that in Denilson, Song and Fabregas, we have three young midfield masters who are completely complementary, to the extent that they form a complete, unified defending / attacking unit unseen anywhere else. Here’s how i visualise them:

    Song (Defence) –> Denilson (Defense / Attack) –> Fabregas (Attack / Create)

    I know that in practice, it probably won’t be so restrictive and each player would like play multiple roles with plenty of changing of positions given the smoothness and fluidity of the team. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the Master himself has done an incredible job of building up very carefully a complete, unifield midfield machine that would be terrorizing our opponents as the season progresses.

  • Jonny Neale

    Wonderful article – I love hearing insightful perspective from other countries.

    On these pages just as we signed Vermaelen I made a thrilled fuss over a comment he had made about putting his body on the line for Arsenal (I love the clear statement of intent – there is no wussing out and nowhere to hide once you have made a statement of intent like that).

    And boy did he show this quality against Celtic. The crucial ball he ran back for and won, early in the game he was utterly committed and fearless. I was off my seat, fist to the air because this is a quality we lacked last season and whatever Wenger may say about leadership (I disagree with him) this kind of fighting spirit can be IMMENSELY inspiring for teammates.

    Great stuff.

  • Jonny Neale

    The interesting question Ken is would he have gone for a 4-3-3 but for the fact that Barcelona had shown the world it could work so well?

    Nothing wrong with that in itself but it is certainly how it looks and it’s what the writers seem to imply.

  • Faron

    Vermaelen is a class signing. and it has blown me away how he and Gallas have clicked. long may it continue.
    I hope Johan can also make a contribution this year. i think he deserves to have a few chances this season.

  • Paul

    Vermaelen is class, song in class, this Arsenal article is class, Arsenal is class.

    On an aside, apparently spud fans went out to buy this season’s season review dvd having broken into the top four finally. Now they finally have the monies to build their new stadium.

  • haho

    Great article, being Dutch I followed Vermaelen for a while myself and I knew he could be great if he didn’t have the idiotic manager (Marco van Basten) or the huge responsibility (he was captain and the only real capable defender). Also funny to see how Flemish people think of us Dutch… (loud mouths ey?) Vermaelen is a real dominator and also a very honest, humble guy, a hard worker and a powerful person. He was always overshadowed at Ajax by Vertongen, who is a lot flasher and did get to play on his prefered place (whereas Vermaelen was shunted to LB half the time), but Vertonghen is nowhere near as good.

    Leuk artikel Walter!

  • Armin Medic

    I was really surprised to see how Vermaelen have good cooperation and coordination with Gallas, and seams to me that’s what we missed last year. Toure is top class player, but once on field Gallas and he played their own games (I don’t know who is to blame for). But with Vermaelen it look totally different. Look what he was doing when we are in defense, he already took charge, he directing other players on his side, closing gaps, have feeling for position and he is really fast.
    You may have two best CBs on world, but if they don’t communicate, its like you have only one. With Vermaelen we have, so far, perfect partnership.

    I have to be honest and admit I was a bit skeptic, but I guess I was too much thinking about game Belgium – Bosnia, but when I consider he is paid 10 millions, and when you know how Wenger save money, it wasn’t surprise to me. If Le Boss give 10 millions for defender than it must be a top class defender (even if he is not 9 footer)

  • walter

    As to prove my writing, I read on Arsenal.com an article in which Vermaelen is pointing to his teammates and praises specially Gallas for helping him and teaching him things.
    It’s that rather, and sometimes a bit to much, modest and down to earth attitude that we have in Flanders. And that we like. We don’t like people with the ‘I am the best, I am the biggest-attitude”. Our popular sports hero’s always had that attitude of modest and that “Just was a bit lucky-explenation” after a great performance. You can also find that in Kim Clijster (tennis) for example but she also is always fighting like a lion when on court.

    Since the signing of Vermaelen the Flemish press, don’t know about the Walloon press because I don’t read them, is bringing lots of news from him and The Arsenal so it really is great to see him performing like he does for the moment. And in all the articles he stood up and said he would be fighting like a mad man first to get in the starting line (which he already has) and then to fight with all his body and mind to succeed in Arsenal.
    He once said: “When you are wanted bij Arsene Wenger and Arsenal: you just go there.”

  • LRV

    Walter, Great Article, very articulate. Thomas Vermaelen (great, I finally manage to spell his name right) has proved his background and justified the confidence that Arsene has in him.

    Reading your article today, I can now understand the courage of you guys from Flanders. In your 1st article, you told us what your family went through to get to an Arsenal game when quite a lot of people would have given up. Thomas is now doing your people proud by showing the same courage on the pitch. I salute that courage.

  • walter

    @haho: well you know in Flanders we still have some double standards with Holland. I am one of the Flemish people who feels sad for the 1830 divorce because I feel we would have been better off if we stayed together. I also think that with our defensive attitude in football and Holland with their attacking attitude would have been the best match. The best team would be 4 Belgian defenders and the attacking part all from Holland. We would be unbeatable.
    About the loud voices: In Holland you can always say what you think and everyone accepts that, but in Belgium it was and is sometimes difficult and dangerous to do that. So it was something he had to learn when coming to Ajax and it is something that all Flemish footballers experience when they come to Holland to play football.
    There was no bad intent, just to point out the way he had to walk in his career.
    As said before I really like Holland and now I’m sticking my head out when Belgium and Holland meat…. I always hope Holland wins because you play far more beautiful football than our “park the bus in front of goal-style” yuk.

  • walter

    @ armin medic: the Belgium national side is a problem child because the coach always have to take care not only to choose the best players but to find an balance between Flemish and Walloon players.
    If he chooses to many Flemish players then the Walloon press is on his back and vice versa.
    I sometimes say there are only 2 real Belgian players in that team: Fellaini (Morrocon roots) and Kompany (African roots and being from Brussels).
    The best performances from a Belgium team was when the biggest part was from one side and you got good cohesion, but mostly it is a very thin bond

  • Armin Medic

    And you think Bosnians don’t have problem with Serbs, Muslims and Croats in national side 🙂

    Sorry for off topic Tony

  • haho

    Ah Walter, I totally agree. Though I must admit to being shocked a little when things like Wilders and Vlaams Belang come up… They are a trait we both share unfortunately. I would have like Flanders to have been a wealthy, Burgundian part of the Netherland with Wallonia being a part of France… And as you say, Belgian defenders are good, on the whole. Though with Witsel, Defour and Hazard your offence is not shabby either..

    It’s probably true, as well…We Dutch tend to speak up, especially the Amsterdam types Vermaelen would have grown up with at Ajax… Very insightful, I must admit.

  • IndianGooner

    Hi Walter, Thanks for the background of Vermaelen.. Hope He continues his great start at Arsenal for a long time.. His commitment during the last 2 games have been second to none. I love his ‘never-say-die’ attitude and cold-face(killer!!) looks. His leadership qualities and the way he organises the defence makes him a lot better than Vidic. I hope he makes you and others from Flanders proud and achieves a lot in his career and win lots of trophies with Arsenal..

  • IndianGooner

    On a different note(apologies for going off-topic), I just read this( http://www.arsenal.com/news/news-archive/arsenal-appoints-three-new-senior-executives ) on Arsenal.com. The first thought that came into my mind was that we’ve taken another step forward in fulfilling Arsene’s dream of making Arsenal the best club in the world. This is a positive step taken by Gazidis & the Arsenal board and they really wants to take the commercial side of Arsenal to be on par or better than the other BIG clubs. I wish him all the best and hope he achieves his targets and proves that the self-sustainability model of Ownership (which Arsene wants Arsenal to follow) is the best model.

  • walter

    I also agree haho (how dull aint it).
    Holland and Flanders together would have been a serious force in Europe, football wise, but also on economic size. Combining the strenghts of the ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp in stead of fighting each other for traffic.
    Well we cannot change history…
    So I live in an absurd country. The famous painting “ceci n’est pas une pipe” could have been painted with a map of Belgium and saying: ceci n’est pas un pays”.
    Flanders lives on his own with its own governement and so do the Walloons and when we have to do a thing together…. nothing is done anymore. Always disagreement upon disagreement.
    “And who was right and who was wrong
    it didn’t matter in the thick of the fight….”
    But now we are going well off the football topic.
    Lets play ball….

  • How different this is from the British perspective. There is no drive at all anywhere to bring the four parts of the United Kingdom together – indeed we can’t even contemplate putting a British team into the Olympics, and end up with an English team playing under the name of Team GB.

    (For those outside the UK, if I may explain, England and Scotland were joined by the Act of Union in – I think – 1707 in which James the somethingth (7th?) of Scotland became James I of England (I am writing from memory of old history lessons), and the two countries have been drifting further and further apart ever since, as far as I can tell.

    But then I am just a cynical old Anglo-Saxon.

  • walter

    Well Tony it is rather strange because I would applaud a union between Holland and Flanders but this is not a general opinion in Flanders I must admit. Is it because in the history lessons they have told us all the bad things that caused the seperation ?
    But in general there is a feeling that Belgium at a moment in time will stop to excist and that the two main communities will go their own way (as they do already as much as they can). The feeling is that one day people will say: what apart from the national football team we still have in common and then say well if it is only that….
    The biggest thing that keeps us together for the moment is Brussels which we have a love-hate relation with.

    Is it divide (from the Walloons) to unite (with Holland once again) I really don’t know… after all it is you with that crystal thing aint it… 😉

  • Armin Medic

    UK was always strong enough (strong centripetal force) to alow it self division in sport, being aware its only sport and not politic and it cant have influence on further separatistic tendencies. As well there is no “big brother” in UK to attract UK relatives in to mothers lap, so you could allow your self such luxury. With Belgium and Balkans there is always big brother over the border (France and Holland in Belgian case, Serbia and Croatia in Bosnian case), of whom you have to be aware, even in sport.
    Belgium is lucky because they still manage to keep players for national side, while in Bosnia you have problem because Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats going to play for Serbia and Croatia (in example Corluka is Bosnian but playing for Croatia, one of players Wenger was considering Subotic is Bosnian but plays for Serbia, something similar is with Vidic as well). I guess, looking from Belgium side, its pure luck that both, Holland and France have quite strong source of young players, if that’s not case,they would already be facing player robbery as we have here.

  • walter

    Well in fact in Belgium we have the tendency to give foreign players a Belgian passport so they can play for Belgium. Those are the real “Belgian” players in a way.
    To give a small but significant example about how many of us feel of Belgium is that untill some years ago no player, being Flemish or Walloon, ever sang along with the national anthem.
    Because no one knows the words and when you sing it in wich language to sing it ? I must admit that I cant get much further then the first 2 words in Dutch and those are: “O Vaderland”. I havent got a clue what it sounds in French to be honest. So it was always a red face feeling when two national teams stood there one singing ther national anthem in full voice and with pride in their face and our players just stood there thinking: when can we start playing cause thats why we are here.
    A few years back there was even a committee that came up with the answer and it was to teach the words to the players. Now some of them just move there mouth whithout maken noise and some sing the “lalalalala-version”.
    I find it all rather amusing: when it doesn’t come from the heart…
    O my God, don’t I live in a funny country. 😉

  • Muppet

    Hi, cracking blog – but I can see that u are all delooded and me is of the opinion dat there arnt any brothers on this site, given that u are talking about regions south of the equator. It seams like u are all AKBs anyway – this is bad. U need to get a grips on reality people cos we are going to sink like middle order of the english test team – kapiece ? anybody who finks song is a good player needs some serious mojo.

  • notlager

    Walter, great article!
    Following his move from Ajax to Arsenal the only topic of discussion was Vermaelens height and supposed lack of speed. I’m happy you took this debate away from the numbers (which ironically proved to be irrelevant) and provided us an insight look into Thomas Vermaelen’s background and personality. Thank you.

    I also read with interest the debate you were having with Armin and Haho. Coming from a country still feeling the after effects of a civil war I somehow relate to what you have written. Today you reminded me why I support Arsenal. A team full of players from from all over the world with different cultural and religious backgrounds getting along so well and fighting for the same cause. A true inspiration for life!

  • Tony

    Walter –
    Do you know much about Thomas’ background ? It’s turning into a cliche of sorts,(his dead-eye look) but he reminds me of an Israeli sniper I once met. Not a guy to mess with, shall we say.
    Also, who exactly are Walloons ? They sound rather sweet, in the way the Amish do..a throwback to a more innocent world.

    Tony, James VI..

  • walter

    I always liked the muppets and it looks like Waldorf and Stattler are still alive

  • DutchGooner

    You Belgians have been always jealous of us!!!!!!!!!!!we will find out if vermealen is the real thing against the big clubs

  • messi

    this is a great blog, great truth in here and great opinions from everbody els. Vermaelen is top top top quality its only his second game but even i pre season i saw a few great aspects of him, but he’s unbelievable, i think everybody will remember him so far for that incredible challenge against celtic, running from their box back to our box and flying in with the tackle INCREDIBLE! IN ARSENE WE TRUST!!!

  • walter

    Notlager, this is also one of the reasons I so like the Arsenal more than ever.
    Tony, what the background from Thomas Vermaelen is that he spent his youth in the north of Antwerp in the town of Stabroek. This is a small town lying very close to the port of Antwerp. You can smell the smoke of the industrie very well over there. It is a rather rough neigbourhead. I am a referee myself so I can make a comparison between the different regions around Antwerp and the style of football they play and in that region the game is played a bit like… in the north of England I guess. Blood on the post, you know
    So maybe he had to be firm when starting to play?

    Walloons are the people who live in the south of Belgium and who speak French. Belgium is divided in 2 communities : Flanders and Wallonië. Flanders is the north and we speek dutch and we make some 60 % of the people in Belgium. The Walloons some 39 % and yes there are some 1 % of Belgrium people who speak German (but they belong to the Walloon part for most although they have their own parliament like the Flemish and the Walloons).
    So you got almost the complete picture as simple as can be explained because in reality it isn’t always as straightforward as I put it.

  • Tony

    Thanks Walter – appreciate the information. What a signing!

  • chris

    Hi walter, Look I’m a Walloon and i can’t agree with what you’re saying!! I’m proud to be Belgian and I don’t care frow what part of the country the players come from. The best team will be composed with Walloons and Flemishes (hazard, fellaini, kompany, witsel are very important to the balance of the team).
    Remember the last real leader we had in our team, Marc Wilmots, not a classy player but a man who was proud to be Belgian.

    And btw I know our national anthem by heart (but in french 😉 because we learn it at university because Walloons are proud to be Belgian

    Allé groetjes van Namur 😉

  • chris

    Hi walter, Look I’m a Walloon and i can’t agree with what you’re saying!! I’m proud to be Belgian and I don’t care frow what part of the country the players come from. The best team will be composed with Walloons and Flemishes (hazard, fellaini, kompany, witsel are very important to the balance of the team).
    Remember the last real leader we had in our team, Marc Wilmots, not a classy player but a man who was proud to be Belgian.

    And btw I know our national anthem by heart (but in french 😉 because we learn it at university because Walloons are proud to be Belgian

    Allé groetjes van Namur 😉

  • walter

    Hallo Chris, nice for you that you know the anthem.
    Regarding the choices that whoever is manager of the national team makes they get some stick every now and then from the press be it in Flanders or in Wallonië.
    Flemish managers generally get more credit in Flanders en vice versa, thats what the history learns us.

  • chris

    That is why we needed a foreign trainer, and I’m sure advocaat will do a good job

    COME ON U GUNNERS

  • SDK

    A very different article indeed. Much like this website itself.

    Although these are early days, Thomas Vermaelen seems all set to join an elite and ever increasing group of players who were never rated very high by all and sundry but proved themselves to be class acts under the guidance of Arsene Wenger after being spotted by him.

    The reason behind Wenger’s unbelievable success, that other clubs and managers only dream about is more than the fantastic scouting system we have.

    It has a lot to do with the fantastic atmosphere that is created in the club and the trust that Wenger puts in his players that we see so many players give their best only in Arsenal and not perform at similar levels either before or after coming to Arsenal.

    When I look at our next door neighbour Tiny Totts team, I don’t really see a lack of quality. Players like Bentley, Bent, Pavluchenko, Defoe etc. are not bad players by any means. But, somehow they have seriously underperformed and even had to see reserve team football or get kicked out for half their purchase price after a very short time of stay.

    It’s something about the management and the mentality in some clubs that makes so many people under perform out there while there are other clubs like Arsenal where almost every player peaks and performs up to the potential.

  • Tony

    As TV said : “If Arsene Wenger and Arsenal want you…you go!”

    From the (ex) captain of Ajax – quite a statement.

    Probably only Ferguson has the same magnetism (??) in the UK.