Dries Mertens is a player who didn’t initially showcase his talent at a young age. On the contrary, he had to overcome obstacles to establish himself in top-level football. His journey began in the Dutch second division with Apeldoorn, where he spent three years before making his debut in the top division at the age of 22. These three years laid the foundation for his subsequent success. Two individuals close to him during that time still have vivid memories of it. One of them is Julius Vile, who proudly recalls that Dries Mertens used to make special sandwiches for him.
Mertens’ sandwiches became a specialty in the dormitory in the center of Apeldoorn. “Dries would always make sandwiches with fried chicken and fries, but I never wanted to try them. He had to make something else for me,” Vile shared with Goal.
Thus, Mertens’ sandwiches became a treat for the group of young boys, aged between 18 and 21, who played for the local team and aspired to have successful football careers.
Mertens lived in the dormitory with four other compatriots, including Nacer Chadli, who currently plays for Anderlecht and is Mertens’ teammate in the national team.
“These dormitories were a gathering place for the entire team after training. Everyone felt welcome there,” Vile recalls. “We played cards or PlayStation, listened to music, or simply talked. When it got late, many players slept on mattresses on the floor.”
Maturity beyond his physical stature
While the atmosphere was pleasant, Mertens faced challenges related to his physicality. He arrived in Apeldoorn in the summer of 2006 at the age of 19. While some 19-year-olds were already starting for European powerhouses, Mertens was far from that level. He had been part of the Anderlecht youth academy but was expelled at the age of 16 due to being considered too small and physically weak. He got a chance at Gent, but two years later, he received the same verdict: too short and physically weak. “At 18, my body looked like that of a 15-year-old,” he later admitted in his career.
Initially, Mertens went on loan to the Belgian third division club Eendracht Aalst before moving to Apeldoorn, the place where the boy became a man and where his career took off.
The start in Apeldoorn
In his first season with Apeldoorn, Mertens quickly secured a starting position, and his talent was evident to everyone. However, he lacked effectiveness, ending the season with two goals and no assists. The team also struggled, finishing last in the league, but fortunately, there were no relegations at that time, allowing them to remain in the second division.
Already impressed by Mertens, Koen Garritsen, who played against him for Fortuna Sittard, said, “He was incredibly small but also the fastest player I had ever seen. His first touch was incredible. You could feel that he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the ball before even receiving it. What impressed me the most was his change of direction. While I felt like an elephant in duels, he had already left me behind.”
Captain at 21
In the subsequent seasons, Garritsen’s admiration for Mertens grew, not just during official matches, but also in training. In the summer of 2007, Mertens and Vile both joined Apeldoorn, with Mertens being their first point of contact.
“He would always approach the new recruits, integrate them, and involve them in team activities. Even at a young age, he felt responsible for keeping the team united,” Vile shares. “Dries laughed a lot and helped us not only feel like teammates but also friends.”
Mertens played a crucial role for the team, not only due to his character and language skills but also his ability to speak multiple languages. Being from Flanders, he was fluent in Dutch and French. “Dries served as a translator and a link between the Dutch-speaking players and the French-speaking Belgians in the team,” recalls Garritsen. As a result, Mertens was named captain at the beginning of his third season, at just 21 years old.
The leap to the elite
At this point, Mertens was already a leader on the team, not only due to his character and language skills but also his performances on the field. After a somewhat underwhelming first season in the second division, he significantly improved, contributing to a total of 21 goals and assists. His speed and physicality gradually improved, with him gaining more muscle mass. “Initially, he would often be brought down in duels, but he became stronger and more intimidating over time. Once he learned how to use his body, he became unstoppable,” Vile asserts.
In his third season, Mertens showcased an elevated level of play, which naturally earned him an opportunity to prove himself in the top flight. Utrecht paid around 600,000 euros to acquire the 22-year-old player.
“He was fully convinced that he would have a great career,” Vile recalls. “And we all knew that. None of us were surprised.”
Mertens quickly made an impression at Utrecht and earned his debut for the Belgian national team. It came as no surprise when, after two more years, he made a move to the prestigious club PSV Eindhoven, eventually joining Napoli in 2013.
Coinciding with Apeldoorn’s 100th anniversary in 2013, the club faced financial difficulties and has since been playing in amateur leagues. Meanwhile, Mertens established himself as a legend at Napoli.