Monday, June 6, 2011

Belgium appeared similar to Portugal – experiencing decline and crisis. It was more complex story, though, and because of that – a bit misleading. Like Portugal, Belgium was well regarded in the football world. Like Portugal is was a country with two dominant clubs. Unlike Portugal the Belgian top clubs were not international winners and the most of the respect came out of strong performances of the national team – in Portugal, the success of great Benfica of early 1960s elevated the national team. And yet like in Portugal, the old status quo is falling apart, but in Belgium it started earlier than in Portugal, which was more or less seen as a general decline and tough transitional period, most likely leading to permanent sinking. So far, Belgium was going down… good performance at the 1970 World Cup; still strong, but lower than 1970, in 1972, when the ‘Red Devils’ finished 4th at the European Championship. Then – missing the 1974 World Cup. Steady downhill… after all, Belgium is a small country and there never was big pool of players. About 20 – 25, the most, enough for a national team, which always performed well because of great spirit, rather than supreme skills. By 1975 the generation from the 1960s was retiring or coming close to retirement, and the new crop was not looking very promising. After all, Paul van Himst was one of the biggest stars in Europe during the 60s – in the first half of the 70s the only new player to become internationally famous was Rob Rensenbrink in 1974. A Dutch, not Belgian!
Of course, national team depends on club football and here was even more detectable decline: Belgian football was essentially Anderlecht (Brussels) and Standard (Liege) – the big rivals and domestic winners. Although threatened by inevitable retirement of van Himst, Anderlecht managed to maintain more or less good level, but Standard was in bad position. The squad was aging on wider scale than Anderlecht – Belgian football traditionally depended on imported players and Standard’s were from the same generation of their domestic stars. The rivals from Brussels replaced their foreigners with younger ones earlier (Rensenbrink was one of the newcomers). By 1975 Standard were no longer strong and in the same time the new challenger – FC Brugge – was not ripe enough (their title of 1973 was viewed as novelty so far – result of some lapse of Anderlecht, rather than coming of new great force.) At the end, by 1975, Belgian football reluctantly depended on old players, well behind their prime, yet, still better than the youngsters.
Familiar picture: van Himst lifts the Belgian Cup. Anderlecht won the final against Antwerpen 1-0. One more cup for Anderlecht, but the last one for van Himst.
The troubles of Belgian football were much deeper than simple change of generations – the population was not exactly crazy about football, and most clubs suffered financially for many years. In times when gate receipts were the primary source of income, empty stands meant folding. Shirt advertisement was allowed as a remedy (it was smaller countries with financially struggling football the first to use adds – Austria, France, Belgium. Among the big football country only the practical West Germans adopted the practice in the early 70s). The remedy did not save the clubs and Belgian football, already a historian’s nightmare because of endless and complicated mergers, now added bankruptcies and folding of clubs. At least, the practice was thorough, no corruption here. Corruption is elastic term – it runs from backroom deals, various political influences and schemes, appeals for ‘cultural importance’, and many other shady things right to direct bribing of officials and fixing of results. In Southern Europe bankruptcies are avoided to this very day by corrupt practices, but the Belgians are not Southerners and their football is governed by the business law of the country. Hence, whoever is greatly in debt has to declare bankruptcy and fold shop. Mergers aimed at preventing that, alas, temporary. Belgium was not the only European country facing such troubles and elsewhere reforms were attempted – apart from tightening of financial rules, it was drastically reducing of the first league (Austria, Scotland, Switzerland). The Belgian curiously went the opposite direction: they increased the First Division from 16 teams in 1973-74 to 20 for 1974-75 season. As if purposely to confuse further football historians… In real time, the increase did not improve anything, except showing better the crisis of Belgian football to outsiders: Standard finished 6th; Anderlecht – 3rd, behind Antwerpen on worse goal difference. Winning the cup was very small revenge for Anderlecht, I suspect.