Our European guru educates and enlightens
“In sport,” said Belgium’s greatest footballer Paul van Himst, “you have to be able to handle losing.”
The Red Devils, beaten 4-1 by Morocco in their latest friendly, now handle defeat so well that they find it hard to do anything else. Even Van Himst’s old club Anderlecht are failing with style, losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, their heaviest ever home defeat in Europe.
Van Himst is one of my idols, a perennial star in the football annuals I devoured as a kid. Technically, he wasn’t as accomplished, I now realise, as Henri Coppens, the iconoclastic Belgian star of the 1950s who regarded the football pitch purely as a stage on which to perfect his performance. (Beerschot fans would often turn up just to see him, so he had a point.)
But Van Himst empowered his teams. With his immaculate side-parted hair, he looked, as Harry Pearson noted, “like he might have driven one of the Minis in The Italian Job while wearing string-backed gloves”. He did star in the memorably bad cult movie Escape To Victory (see fan site here), although he disappointed in the 4-4 draw between the Allies and Germany. Mind you, he was also accused of disappearing in Belgium’s 1970 World Cup games.
Paul van Himst (in red, at right) hides at Mexico 70
No matter. Van Himst inspired Anderlecht to the final of the 1970 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup; they lost to Arsenal 4-3 on aggregate but should have been five or six up after the first leg. Van Himst scored 10 goals in 10 Fairs Cup games that season but, bizarrely, fired blanks in the last three rounds of the tournament.
After he retired, Anderlecht won the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1976 and 1978 and, with Van Himst in charge as coach, the UEFA Cup in 1982. Belgian football wasn’t exactly cool then but it was famous for something nobler than perfecting the offside trap – which the national team had, under French coach Rene Sinibaldi, used to great effect in the 1960s.
If Belgian football has a golden age, it would start in 1976 and end in 1986, when Maradona’s genius deprived the Red Devils of a place in the World Cup final. The most famous photograph from this tournament, showing the Argentine with the ball at his feet and six Belgians looking worried, doesn’t do that Belgium side justice or explain why, when they returned home, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Brussels to welcome them.
The 1986 World Cup quarter-final, in which Belgium beat the Soviet Union 4-3 after extra-time, is the Belgian equivalent of the 1966 final: central to the nation’s football mythology. One of the most dramatic games in World Cup history (see the match report), this triumph inspired prime minister Wilfried Martens to declare “We can move mountains”.
That Belgium side was chock-full of talent. The famous names on the teamsheet were Jan Ceulemans, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff and Enzo Scifo. But it has been downhill – for Belgium and its football – pretty much ever since.
The golden age was tarnished by revelations that Anderlecht had bribed a referee before the second leg of their 1984 UEFA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. When the scandal came to light in 1997, UEFA banned Anderlecht from European competition for a year.
Van Himst coached the national side to the last 16 at USA 94, where they lost 3-2 to Germany after being denied an obvious penalty. It was unjust but, as Anderlecht had been awarded a contrived penalty against Forest in 1984, it was as if the gods had insisted on payback.
Belgium co-hosted Euro 2000 and succeeded in becoming the first host nation not to reach the quarter-finals. Two years later, they gave Brazil much more of a scare than England did.
Since then, they haven't qualified for a major tournament and Belgian clubs have become a marginal presence in European competition. Some blame the Bosman ruling. Others point to the disparity in TV money that clubs like Anderlecht and Club Brugge earn compared to clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool, with whom they once competed on reasonably equitable terms.
When English or Spanish clubs snap up talent from PSV or Ajax, as they are wont to do, the Dutch clubs spend some of their loot buying Belgian talent. 11 Belgian internationals currently play in the Eredivisie and they are starting to cross the border before they have reached their prime.
Maarten Martens, AZ Alkmaar’s goalscoring midfielder, left Anderlecht when he was just 20. This pattern has almost been officially recognised, with Beveren and Royal Antwerp effectively becoming feeder clubs for Arsenal and Manchester United respectively.
So is there any hope? Some. The Belgian FA is trying to pep up the Jupiler League, reducing the number of top-flight clubs from 18 to 16 and introducing play-offs in 2009-10. Live games on TV cannot, now, be played at the same time as other Jupiler matches. And the Jupiler is competitive: Standard Liege look set to win it while Anderlecht, traditionally the dominant force, are stuck in fourth.
Despite the dismal showing against Morocco, Belgium still nurtures some fine players. Vincent Kompany, the great hope of Belgian football, is still only 21 and if he can shrug off his latest injury may yet come good. 19-year-old midfielder Steven Defour is a precocious, egotistical and brilliant playmaker whose repertoire of passes and shimmies have already sparked interest from Ajax.
In Hungary, the media have coined the term “Hungarian disease” to describe the curious process by which promising, technically gifted youngsters somehow fail to fulfil the expectations raised by their prodigious talents. A similar blight has struck many Belgian stars, from Giles de Bilde to Walter Baseggio and, so far, Kompany. If young stars like Defour can buck that trend, Belgium may soon discover that, in football, you have to be able to handle winning too.
Beveren is no longer involved with Arsenal since Jean-Marc Guillou left the club along with his Ivorians. Maybe the agreement has not been terminated officially, but there haven't been any Arsenal youngsters in recent seasons and Lierse are now trying to set up an agreement with the Gunners
to loan some B-squad players.
Manchester United has no players at Antwerp at the moment either actually. They sent a lot of youngsters over last season (Evans, Simpson, Gibson, Campbell, Dong, ...) hoping to promote to the first divison. Antwerp were in the running at the winter break, but then United called back most of them and the team's push for promotion derailed badly.
Ow, and btw, everybody knows Henri as Rik Coppens here in Belgium ;)
Not so Ive. I saw Antwerp against Union St Gilloise recently and they fielded two stringy United youngsters. I think they have four on their books, who all look like they could use some stoemp and rabbit stew. I did wonder, though, whether integrating them did more harm than good for Antwerp, who seemed to lack rythymn.
Good piece, especially the wonderful photo. incidentally, Standard did take the title under Michel ***'homme, the goalie of the great 80s Belgian team. But i doubt they'll trouble anyone in the Champions League. With Jupiler league tickets between 13 and 30 euro its easy to see why the clubs can't compete with English ones, but the passion of the fans is priceless.
You talk about two different issues in your blog. 1) You have the Belgian clubs who fail to compete in the Champions League, and 2) you have the Belgian national team who fails to qualify for international tournaments.
1) Belgian clubs have the same difficulties as clubs like Ajax Amsterdam, Benfica, Sparta Prague, Dynamo Kiev, Rosenborg etc. The reasons that they fail to compete are the same as in those other countries. So it has nothing to do with Belgium, but with money, small competition etc.
2) The Belgian national team simply lacked talent during the past 8 years because of poor youth management in Belgium. Youth management used to be all about fysical qualities and teamplay. This will ring a bell in England. Youth management in Belgium now is all about technique and individual training at clubs like Standard Liège, Germinal Beerschot, Racing Genk, RSC Anderlecht,... Also a lot of the Belgian talents move abroad at young age now, joining clubs like PSV Eindhoven, Ajax Amsterdam, Lille OSC and Racing Lens. This has resulted in a whole new young Belgian generation that even qualified for the Olympic games in China. Talented players are Steven Defour, Vincent Kompany, Anthony Vanden Borre, Maarten Martens, Moussa Dembele, Tom De Mul, Thomas Vermaelen, Jan Vertonghen, Jonathan Blondel, Sébastien Pocognoli, Logan Bailly, Yves Ma-kalambay, Marouane Fellaini, Kevin Mirallas, Stijn De Smet, Roland Lamah, etc.
However, the generation that has to qualify for the Olympics in London seems to me the biggest example of the revolution in Belgian youth football with huge talents like Eden Hazard, Funso Ojo, Vadis Odjidja Ofoe, Axel Witsel, Geoffrey Mujangi-Bia, Quentin Pottiez, Paul-José Mpoku, Maxime Lestienne, Bruno Baras, etc.
So you could conlude that in four years the Belgian national team will compete again, but the clubs problably will have the same difficulties in Europe, like most clubs in small competitions have.
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