Record breaker Jan Vertonghen Belgium's Mr. Dependable
Rene Vandereycken hasn't forgotten the day he named Jan Vertonghen in the Belgium squad for the first time.
"A French-speaking journalist turned to his Dutch-speaking colleague and asked: 'Jan Vertonghen, who is that?'", Vandereycken -- Red Devils manager from 2005 to 2009 -- recalled this week.
In the French and Flemish regions of Belgium, Vertonghen, who had spent the season on loan at Dutch club RKC Waalwijk from Ajax, was a complete unknown ahead of his international debut against Portugal in June 2007.
Vandereycken did not think Vertonghen had any outstanding individual qualities but he was planning for the future, and felt the "driven and calm" 20-year-old had potential. He was right. On Tuesday, Vertonghen became his country's record appearance holder after winning a 97th cap in the 4-0 win over Cyprus in Brussels. The Tottenham centre-half surpassed Jan Ceulemans, a legend in Belgium who helped them to the final of Euro 1980 and the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup.
Vertonghen is not regarded in the same way but he has achieved the record in just over a decade, while Ceulemans' caps spanned 14 years, admittedly in an era with less international football. Key to the achievement has been Vertonghen's versatility. Vandereycken played him in midfield on occasion -- and still regrets that Vertonghen did not continue to play there -- but he has won most of his caps out of position at left-back, as he did against Cyprus, where even Belgium's "Golden Generation" has not produced a better option.
At centre-half, where he plays for Spurs, Vertonghen would not have earned as many caps given competition from Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Toby Alderweireld and others. His consistency and fitness have also been factors. Kompany made his debut as a 17-year-old in 2004 and he would have long since broken Ceulemans' record if he had stayed fit. Vermaelen, who debuted a year before Vertonghen, would also have had a shot were it not for injuries.
For Belgium, Vertonghen is more Mr. Dependable than a national legend, partly a symptom of the general view of the underachieving current squad. He is not the most celebrated member of the Golden Generation and he is not even the most celebrated Belgian at Tottenham, where former Ajax teammate Alderweireld and Mousa Dembele -- Vertonghen's friend since the age of 12, who has played alongside him for Belgium from the start -- are often hailed as more important.
It was telling that one of the questions asked of Vandereycken, interviewed about Vertonghen by Het Last Niews, was whether Belgium captain Eden Hazard could break the record next. "You cannot really predict that," he said.
A low profile suits Vertonghen, a typically humble Fleming who is not a typical Premier League footballer. His hobbies include watching cycling, doing jigsaw puzzles and playing board games, and it was him who introduced the Spurs and Belgium squads to Settlers of Catan, a simple strategy game. In October 2015, he was pictured being dropped off for Belgium training by his mum in an old Toyota Corolla. She later explained that Vertonghen's father had bought the car over a decade ago and died shortly afterwards, and they have since refused to upgrade it, taking care to maintain it in tribute to him. She has also refused to allow Vertonghen to buy a new car, since he would use it so little at home.
Catan with my friends! Guess who won? ;) pic.twitter.com/gKJ1IUnatL— Jan Vertonghen (@JanVertonghen) September 10, 2015
One of the things Vandereycken remembers about a young Vertonghen was "a kind of humour that I could appreciate," a sophistication amid the constant pranks with Dembele. Now 30, the defender has retained that sense of humour. In the summer, he welcomed the spending of Spurs' rivals, saying: "I'm happy that everyone has strengthened their team because that makes it so much better when you beat them."
It was a typical interview, with Vertonghen beginning reluctantly but quickly warming to his subject intelligently.
Vandereycken believes Vertonghen would have had "an equally good career" in midfield and Arsene Wenger also felt he was better suited to a more advanced role, prompting the 25-year-old to choose Spurs over Arsenal in 2012. Under Mauricio Pochettino, he has found the best of both worlds, however, and he has been magnificent since Tottenham's switch to a three-man defence, where he is able to stride out from the back, as he did so well in the recent 4-0 win at Huddersfield.
As a midfielder, Vertonghen may have caught the eye ahead of his talented teammates more often for club and country, or even joined Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Maartens on this week's Ballon d'Or shortlist, where there is not a single Premier League defender. But, as it is, captain Vertonghen was carried around the pitch by his superstar teammates on Tuesday to mark his achievement, and there is no-one in Belgium asking who he is now.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.