Soccer City: Brussels – at the heart of Europe, but not football

BRUSSELS, of course, is at the heart of any discussion around Brexit. It has become a reference point and scapegoat for decades for those wishing to blame the European Union for everything from the shape of carrots to the number of foreign footballers in Britain.

From a sporting perspective, Brussels has long since moved off the radar as a major footballing hub, although it spurned the chance to put itself back on the map when the proposed Eurostadium (a provisional site for Euro 2020) was abandoned due to political delays. A number of football scandals have not helped.

Let’s not forget that the city achieved notoriety as the home of the ill-fated Heysel stadium, where in 1985, hooliganism consigned English football to a form of European exile of its own – the punishment for Liverpool’s part in a disaster that killed 39 Juventus fans at the European Cup final.

Belgium is one of the great exporters of football talent. The country’s World Cup squad for 2018 comprised 23 players, of which just one, Leander Dendoncker of Anderlecht, played domestic football. Belgians are among the world’s most coveted players, Eden Hazard of Chelsea and Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City are regularly listed among the top 10 and their combined market value has been estimated at EUR 300 million. No longer are Inspector Poirot, the fictional character of Agatha Christie’s imagination, and Herge’s cartoon Tin-Tin, the most famous Belgians.

Belgium has never had a better set of players than it has today, hence the impressive World Cup performance in Russia, but Belgian clubs rarely trouble Europe’s big-hitters these days. Over the past decade, only once has a Belgian team – Gent in 2015-16 – reached the knock-out stages of the UEFA Champions League.

RSC Anderlecht have dominated Brussels football since the second world war, indeed have won the Belgian championship, in its various guises, a record 34 times. But they were not the first team from the capital to be crowned champions – that honour belonged to Royal Racing Club de Bruxelles, founded in 1894 as an athletics club. Although the club’s original name has long gone, today there is a club called Rhoddiene-De Hoek, based in Sint-Genesius-Rode in Flemish Brabant, that can trace its geneology back to Racing Club.

The most successful Brussels club prior to world war two was Union Saint Gilloise, who now play in the second tier of Belgian football. USG, based in the Forest district, have become something of a cult club and are currently enjoying a revival. Founded in 1897, the club has won 11 Belgian first division titles, the last of which was in 1934-35. When Antwerp hosted the 1920 Olympics, USG’s La Butte stadion was used for a number of games.

By the time organised and regular European competition came around in the 1950s, Belgian football was some way behind its neighbours, despite the fact that the country played its part in the development of the game in Europe. Brussels hosted the European Cup final in 1958, Real Madrid beating AC Milan with the iconic Atomium, which was built that year for the World Fair, looming in the background.

Teams like Anderlecht sustained very heavy blows in the first European games, often suffering double figure aggregate defeats. The dynamic across the continent began to change in the 1960s and by the early 1970s, Belgium had become a credible force. Club sides started to have better runs in Europe and the national team reached the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Anderlecht went painfully close to winning the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup that year, losing 4-3 on aggregate to Arsenal.

By the end of the 1970s, Anderlecht had established themselves as a genuine “European” club, difficult to beat in Brussels and distant cousins of the Dutch total footballers across the border.  They were also the best supported club in Belgium, averaging over 20,000 at their Astrid Park stadium.

On the international stage, Anderlecht made their mark by reaching three European Cup-Winners’ Cup finals between 1975-76 and 1977-78. Anderlecht had two members of the Dutch World Cup team of 1974 in their ranks –  Robbie Rensenbrink and Arie Haan. And there was also François Van Der Elst, a promising young winger who had alarming pace and a clear eye for goal.

Anderlecht won the 1975-76 competition at the Heysel Stadium. They beat West Ham United 4-2 playing fast and incisive football. Rensenbrink and Van Der Elst, the latter who would join West Ham later in his career, scored two goals apiece.

In the summer of 1976, Raymond Goethals arrived at the club after leading the national team between 1968 and 1976. One of Europe’s most sought-after and charismatic coaches, he was known as “Raymond-la-science” for his incredible knowledge of the game.  Always seen with a cigarette screwed into his mouth, Goethals was an advocate of zonal-marking and the 3-5-2 formation long before it became fashionable. At Anderlecht, he was fortunate to have some sublimely gifted players that could produce football with a swagger.

Goethals considered that the jewel in Anderlecht’s crown, the introverted Rensenbrink, was often under-rated and from a technical perspective, every bit as good as the more high profile Johan Cruyff. In1976-77 Anderlecht reached the Cup-Winners’ Cup final again, losing 2-0 to Hamburg in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. As Bruges had won the Belgian double in 1977, Anderlecht competed once more in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1977-78. Belgium had an outstanding year in Europe that season, for Bruges reached the European Cup final and Anderlecht returned to the final of the competition they had won two years’ earlier. It was easy going for Anderlecht in Paris’s Parc des Princes, a 4-0 win against Austria Wien.

Anderlecht won the UEFA Cup in 1983 and were runners-up a year later. They also reached the European Cup-Winners’ Cup again in 1990. The last time a Belgian club reached a European final was in 1993 when Antwerp were beaten by Parma at Wembley, also in the now defunct Cup-Winners’ Cup. The halcyon days of Belgian club football seem a long way off today.

Anderlecht do not have things all their own way in Belgium today, although it is many years since another team from Brussels offered anything like local rivalry. RWD Molenbeek, the successors to old clubs White Star and Racing White, won the title in 1975, but folded in 2002. Bruges are the reigning champions and have won two of the last three titles. The triumvirate of Bruges, Standard Liège and Anderlecht have been challenged in recent years by the rise of Gent and Genk.

In some ways, Bruges, with two teams in the top flight – Cercle Brugge are the other team – is more of a hotbed than the capital city, but whisper it quietly, for Anderlecht and Bruges are fierce rivals!

Although Belgian football has influenced the shape of modern football, largely due to the so-called “Bosman affair”, in which Jean-Marc Bosman, a midfielder from Liège, challenged football transfer rules and paved the way for players to move freely between clubs, Brussels lives in the shadows of more celebrated contemporary European football cities like Turin, Paris, Madrid, Manchester and Munich. It hasn’t always been that way, but Brussels is in good company, even if the noisiest act in town is currently found at the Hemicycle rather than a football stadium in the south-west of the city.

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