BRUSSELS (Reuters): Royal Antwerp defender Toby Alderweireld’s affection for his home city is such that he has a tattoo of its gothic cathedral inked inside his right forearm but after his exploits on Sunday it is the fans who will forever hold him in their hearts.
The 34-year-old scored the vital goal that ensured a first championship in 66 years for the club he supported throughout his boyhood but never got a chance to play for before this year.
His equaliser five minutes into stoppage time at Racing Genk, combined with an implosion at home for their nearest challenger Union Saint Gilloise, saw Antwerp finish the season ahead of both Genk and Union by a single point.
Antwerp were out of the reckoning until near the end of their game when Alderweireld, who pushed forward in a desperate ploy, thrashed home a powerful strike that saw Antwerp draw 2-2 at Genk and snatch the title away from them. (L1N37W0EO)
“I have no words for this,” Alderweireld told Belgian television. “Everyone wrote us off. We fought so hard for this. This is for Antwerp, for my own city. Everyone was against us, but we did it today. Antwerp has deserved this for years.”
The club, known as ‘The Great Old’ as Belgium’s oldest, got into a title-winning position in the championship playoffs after finishing the regular season in third place.
They could have won the title last weekend at home to Union but conceded a late equaliser to see the chance slip and were up against it on Sunday on the final day of the campaign where the destiny of the title was settled in dramatic circumstances.
Alderweireld left Antwerp as a 15-year-old to join Ajax Amsterdam’s academy, bursting into the first team as a teenager and winning three Dutch league titles.
He also won LaLiga with Atletico Madrid in 2014 before moving to Tottenham Hotspur, via Southampton, on a five-year deal in 2015, playing in their 2019 Champions League final loss.
Six seasons at Spurs was followed by a year in Qatar but the ex-Belgium defender always had a spell at Antwerp in his sights. “I’ve been lucky enough to play matches like a Champions League final or a World Cup semi-final, but this is the greatest moment of my career,” said Alderweireld.
“When Antwerp contacted me, nine out of 10 people said: ‘Don’t do it, the club is not ready’. I did it anyway, purely out of love for the club and the city. “You shouldn’t underestimate how hard that (game) was mentally. To achieve such a performance is really fantastic.”