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.


Europe’s Champions: Juventus 1985

IT SEEMS amazing that it took until 1985 for Juventus to win their first European Cup. They had gone close prior to that,  losing 1-0 in both 1973 (Ajax) and 1983 (Hamburg), but they invariably under-achieved in the competition. Sadly, the achievement was overshadowed by the death of 39 Juventus fans in Brussels, caused by crowd violence involving Liverpool supporters. The match became almost incidental but in the aftermath, English clubs were banned from Europe until 1990.

At home in Italy, Juventus were the team of the 1970s through to the early 80s. After Giovanni Trapattoni was appointed manager in 1976, they won five Serie A titles and two Coppa Italias. Furthermore, they had won the UEFA Cup in 1977 and European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1984. From 1970, Juventus had won eight league titles versus two for Inter and one for AC Milan.

Juventus were a mature, star-studded team in 1984. Michel Platini, France’s captain, scored 20 goals in 28 games as Juve won the 1983-84 scudetto. Platini had joined the club in 1982 from Saint-Etienne and went on to win the Ballon d’Or in 1983 and 1984. To cap a great year, Platini also captained France to the European Championship, scoring no less than nine goals in five games, including two hat-tricks.

Juventus had won Serie A by a two-point margin in 1984, just edging out reigning champions Roma. They clinched the title on May 6, drawing 1-1 with Avellino in Turin’s Stadio Communale. Paulo Rossi, the hero of Italy’s 1982 World Cup triumph, scored the last of his 13 league goals to give Juve the lead.

Six members of the victorious 1982 Azzurri side came from Juve: Dino Zoff, Gatano Scirea, Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini Marco Tardelli and Rossi. All were part of the team that won the title in 1984, with Libya-born Gentile moving to Fiorentina in the summer of 1984. Trapattoni signed Avellino’s Luciano Favero as Gentile’s replacement. A powerful and versatile player, he slotted in nicely with the other mainstays of the Juve defence, Scirea and Cabrini, but never won a cap for Italy.

The Juve side was largely Italian, the only foreigners were Platini, Zbigniew Boniek (Poland) and Massimo Bonini (San Marino). Coach Trapattoni was an old campaigner when it came to European club competition – he was part of the AC Milan teams that won the European Cup in 1963 and 1969 and he had also coached the Rossoneri to the UEFA Cup in final in 1974.

The 1984-85 Italian domestic season had added spice in that Diego Maradona arrived at Napoli after leaving Barcelona. The expectation was enormous and created great excitement right across Italy. In addition, unfancied Verona went on to win their one and only scudetto. Verona beat Juventus early in the season 2-0 and it was clear that 1984-85 would be a tougher campaign for the champions. By Christmas, Juve were seven points behind Verona and were languishing in seventh place.

Away from the domestic front, Juve were already in the last eight of the European Cup, having beaten Finland’s Ilves (6-1 on aggregate) and Grasshopper Zurich (6-2) in the first two rounds. Liverpool, the holders, had squeezed past Benfica in the second round after easily disposing of Lech Poznań. The rest of the last eight looked quite weak compared to Liverpool and Juve, who had to face Austria Wien and Sparta Prague respectively in the quarter-finals.

In Turin, Juventus easily beat Sparta 3-0 with Tardelli, Rossi and Massimo Briaschi scoring the goals. Although they lost 1-0 in Prague, going down to a late penalty, they were never in danger of going out of the competition. Their opponents in the semi-final were Bordeaux, who were also beaten 3-0 in the first leg (Boniek, Briaschi and Platini scoring). The second meeting was tense and the French side won 2-0 leaving Juventus hanging on for dear life in the closing minutes.

Liverpool got past Austria Wien and Panathinaikos in the quarters and semis, but they had lost their league championship crown to neighbours Everton, who finished 13 points in front of the Reds. For both clubs, winning the European Cup was the only way they were going to return to the competition in 1985-86. Juve’s team of 1985 may not have secured another chance to win it – the average age of the side was almost 29 years.

The events before the game, with fans dying in the Heysel Stadium, should probably have forced an abandonment. It was something of a surprise that the final went ahead, but it has passed into history as the Heysel disaster rather than a game between two of the world’s top football teams.

The game was decided by a penalty in the 56th minute. Boniek was brought down by Gary Gillespie on the edge of the area, some say it was outside the danger zone, but Swiss referee Andre Daina, gave the penalty. Platini beat Bruce Grobbelaar from the spot and then celebrated before realising his mistake.

Juventus were awarded the trophy in the dressing rooms but then went on a lap of honour, which seemed a little inappropriate in the circumstances. For Liverpool manager Joe Fagan, it was a dreadful finale to his career. Earlier in the day he had announced his retirement: “There was a game of football in the end, but I don’t think anyone’s heart was in it. Mine certainly wasn’t. Football is a game, but not any longer to some. It was UEFA’s decision that we should play, not ours. What a sad way for me to end.”

Many Juventus fans urged their players not to play the game, but they celebrated, albeit reservedly, when their experienced team took the European Cup to Turin for the first time. The final proved to be Paulo Rossi’s last game for Juventus as he joined AC Milan after a poor season in which he managed just three Serie A goals. Boniek and Tardelli also left the club, for Roma and Inter respectively. Trapattoni’s next big foreign signing was Denmark’s Michael Laudrup, who helped Juve recapture the title in 1986.

The football year 1985 was a grim one. Heysel came just a few weeks after the fire at Valley Parade and hooliganism had reared its ugly head several times in the 1984-85 season. It was the beginning of the end of football’s old order, accelerated four years later by the Hillsborough disaster. Juventus were European champions, but the dark shadow of 39 dead supporters has always denied them the chance to really celebrate the achievement.



Photo: PA