If a Belgian club is to compete, it might just be Brugge

CLUB BRUGGE are at the head of the Belgian league this season, a year after they were named as champions after the competition was abandoned due to the pandemic. Although Belgium operates a two-stage league, Brugge must be favourites to retain their title as they have a 14-point lead over second-placed Antwerp and they are 19 clear of Anderlecht. 

It’s hard to imagine now, but Brugge reached two European finals in the 1970s, the UEFA Cup in 1975-76 and European Cup in 1977-78. Both times, they were beaten by a strong Liverpool team. In those days, Belgium was very adept at producing skilful and competitive teams in European competition. As well as Brugge, Anderlecht were worthy European combatants, winning the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1976 and 1978 and losing in the finals of 1977 and 1990. Mechelen also won the competition in 1988 and Standard Liege and Antwerp were beaten finalists.

Brugge may be the best in Belgium at the moment and the country may have one of the best national teams in the world, but clubs from the Jupiler Pro League struggle to compete on the European stage today. Since the Champions League began in 1992-93, only Anderlecht in 2000-01 and Gent in 2015-16 have gone beyond their group.  

Belgium’s clubs are in a similar position to clubs in the Netherlands and France (and other leagues) in that the elite of Europe have way more financial clout and dominate not just on the field of play, but also across the commercial landscape. According to Statista, Club Brugge had the highest market value – € 131 million – among Belgian clubs at the end of November 2019, with Anderlecht (€ 123 million) and Genk (€ 122 million), the only others over € 100 million.

At some stage, the much-feared European Super League may well emerge and the rest of the continent’s football will create something resembling a second tier elite. Clubs like Brugge and maybe Anderlecht will have the chance to become part of that second tier.

Bruges is a small city with a population of less than 120,000. It is best known for its quaint medieval town, lace-making and its role in developing European trade and commerce. Yet the city has two major football clubs, Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge, both of whom play at the Jan Breydel Stadium. The capacity of this shared home is just 29,000 but the ground is no longer fit for purpose according to some experts. Hence, both clubs have plans to build new homes next door to each other. Club Brugge, when supporters are allowed in the stadium, average around 24,000 while Cercle attract much smaller crowds. They averaged less than 6,000 in the 2018-19 season. 

Brugge’s planned new stadium will have a 40,000 capacity and Dirk De Fauw, the major of the city, insists it will be the most beautiful football ground in Europe, possibly the world. The club’s chairman has said that the Jan Breydel is worn out and dangerous. The images of the new arena suggest Brugge are not only aiming to make the project a more intimate experience for fans, they also want to create a stadium that can be a transformational financial asset.  Approximately 10% of the capacity will be prioritised for the lucrative corporate market. Based in the middle of a new park in Bruges’ Sint-Andries district, the architects are SCAU and BZAi and the overall cost may be as much as € 100 million. 

With no funds coming from matchdays, transfer income has been invaluable to clubs like Brugge in 2020-21. Anderlecht and Brugge have been the biggest net recipients, earning € 35 million and € 19 million respectively. Brugge have generated a net € 60 million from the transfer market over the past five years. The leading Belgian clubs are all net sellers and Brugge’s purchases of € 90 million have been countered by € 150 million in sales. Brugge are among the top 11 sellers to clubs from the “big five” leagues.

Brugge’s most recent big sale was 21 year-old forward Krépin Diatta, who went to Monaco for € 16 million in January 2021. The club’s record sale was Wesley to Aston Villa for € 25 million in July 2019, a move that has yet to prove its worth after the player suffered a cruciate knee injury in January 2020. 

As for this season’s Brugge, they have been excellent away from home in the league, losing just one game and conceding seven goals on their travels. Coach Philippe Clement, who played briefly for Coventry City, was appointed in June 2019 and his win rate so far is over 60%. 

The UEFA Champions league campaign ended at the group stage and was frustrating – Brugge lost just twice but finished third, behind Borussia Dortmund and Lazio. Their two wins were against fourth-placed Zenit St. Petersburg. Brugge did enough, however, to qualify for the last 32 of the Europa League and will face Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv over two legs. 

The most eye-catching player in the Brugge side has been winger Noa Lang, a 21 year Dutchman on loan from Ajax. Lang has scored 11 times and also created more than his share of goals for team-mates. The more experienced Hans Vanakan has also been in impressive form and has been eyed by Premier League clubs, notably West Ham who bid close to € 15 million for the 28 year-old midfielder earlier this season.

The Blauw-Zwart squad includes Simon Mignolet, the former Liverpool goalkeeper, and Charles De Ketelaere, who was named the best young player in Belgium in 2020. The 19 year-old has already won his first cap for Les Diables Rouges. Brugge recently added journeyman striker Bas Dost to their squad, signed in December from Eintracht Frankfurt, and took centre back Stefano Denswil (a Brugge old boy) and right back Nabil Dirar on loan from Bologna and Fenerbahce respectively. Brugge have also expressed an interest in luring Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld back to Belgium, but any bid will now have to wait until the summer. 

Football needs successful clubs from right across the continent to make the pan-European competitions more diverse, interesting, healthy and democratic. There was a time when Belgian clubs were highly respected and it would be good to see a return to the time when a visit to Brussels or Bruges could be a fearful away trip. After all, Belgium has proved it can produce talent.


Great Reputations: Anderlecht mid-1970s, trusting in purple

BELGIAN teams never made much of an impact in Europe in the early years of UEFA’s club competitions, the country was largely seen as an also-ran when it came to football. Teams like Anderlecht and Antwerp sustained very heavy blows in the first European Cup tournaments, often suffering double figure aggregate defeats. But the dynamic across the continent began to change in the 1960s and by the early 1970s, Belgium had become a credible force in the game.

Standard Liège reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1961-62, losing to Real Madrid and a year later, Anderlecht surprisingly beat the Spanish giants 4-3 on aggregate in the first round. It was not unusual for a Belgian side to have a decent run in Europe and to match that, the national team also won through to the 1970 World Cup, finishing ahead of Yugoslavia and Spain in their group. In 1970, Anderlecht from Brussels reached the final of the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup and were only narrowly beaten 4-3 by Arsenal.

Across the border, there was a new footballing movement that was gathering pace in the Netherlands which later became known as “total football”. It was only natural that this would have some influence on surrounding countries like Belgium. Teams like Anderlecht and Bruges were now renowned as difficult opponents in European competition and the national team followed-up their 1970 World Cup campaign by qualifying for the semi-finals of the 1972 European Championship, the latter stages of which they hosted.

Anderlecht, at this time, became the best supported club in Belgium, with crowds averaging over 20,000 at their Astrid Park stadium. The “purple and white” won the Belgian league in 1972 and 1974 with a team that included experienced international Paul Van Himst, Dutch winger Robbie Rensenbrink and the Hungarian Attila Ladinsky.

For Anderlecht, the period between 1974 and 1981 saw the club make its mark in Europe, playing some exciting attacking football and winning two European prizes.

In the mid-1970s, Anderlecht and Bruges, led by Austrian Ernst Happel, would fight-out the Belgian title race, but in 1976, 1977 and 1978, the team from West Flanders remained ahead, although in the last of those seasons, there was just a single point between them.

Anderlecht won the Beker van België in 1975 (beating Antwerp) and 1976 (4-0 against Lierse). In 1975-76, under new manager Hans Croon, they entered the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Croon was something of an eccentric manager and a character, but he was seen as a stop-gap until national team manager Raymond Goethals was available to join the club.

Anderlecht had the good fortune of a relatively easy run through the  competition, beating Rapid Bucharest, Yugoslavia’s Borac Banja Luka, Wrexham and East Germans BSG Sachsenring Zwickau. Anderlecht’s opponents in the final were West Ham, who had a tougher route. Croon’s side almost had home advantage, too, with the game being played at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

Anderlecht had two members of the Dutch World Cup team of 1974 in their ranks – Rensenbrink and the recently signed Arie Haan, who joined from Ajax. And there was also François Van Der Elst, a promising young winger who had alarming pace and a clear eye for goal. On the bench was another starlet in Franky Vercauteren, a player who had come through the Anderlecht youth system.

Although West Ham, a team that had faded dramatically after a strong start to 1975-76, took the lead, Anderlecht’s speed and directness earned them a 4-2 victory, with Rensenbrink and Van Der Elst scoring two apiece.

In the summer, Goethals arrived at the club after leading the national team between 1968 and 1976. OIne of Europe’s most coveted and charismatic coaches, he was known as “Raymond-la- science” for his incredible knowledge of the game, his range of nicknames also included “Le sorcier” and “Le Magicien”.  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 – casting them in the role of distant cousins of the Dutch sides of the period.

Goethals considered that the jewel in Anderlecht’s crown, Rensenbrink was often under-rated and from a technical perspective, every bit as good as the more high profile Johan Cruyff. Rensenbrink was an introvert, the complete opposite to his celebrated compatriot.

The only major signing for 1976-77, Goethals aside, was English forward Duncan McKenzie, a wonderfully skilful but infuriatingly inconsistent player. He played just nine games and scored two goals before being sold back to England and Everton.

Anderlecht went close to winning the title and finished second in both the league and cup, beaten 4-3 by Bruges in the final, despite leading 3-1. To underline that 1976-77 was a campaign of near misses, they also reached the Cup-Winners’ Cup final again, losing 2-0 to Hamburg in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium.

As Bruges had won the Belgian double, 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. This time, they had a harder road to the final in Paris – beating Lokomotiv Sofia, Hamburg, Porto and Twente before facing Austria Vienna. It was easy going for Anderlecht in the Parc des Princes, a 4-0 win with Rensenbrink and full back Gilbert Van Binst both scoring twice.  Anderlecht’s consistency and performances in Europe meant they were ranked in the top six in UEFA’s team rankings in 1977-78 – even ahead of teams like Barcelona and Juventus.

Anderlecht continued to go close in the Belgian League but Goethals never won a domestic title with the club. He moved to Bordeaux in 1979 but returned to Belgium with Standard Liège where he won two championships. Linked to a bribery scandal when he was at Liège and forced to resign, he Later won the UEFA Champions League with Marseille. When he died at the age of 83, former Anderlecht player Hugo Broos paid this tribute to him: “I was lucky to play under him for three years – I look back on that period with a lot of happiness. Raymond was one of football’s eternal greats.”

Anderlecht were eventually champions in 1981 and two years’ later, they won the UEFA Cup. But their three consecutive European Cup-Winners’ Cup finals were a considerable achievement and put the club, and Belgian, football firmly on the map.

Photo PA: Anderlecht 1976-77