Monday, February 13, 2012

If Dutch football slipped a bit, their Belgian neighbours somewhat improved. The improvement showed itself largely on international level, but when two teams of a single country reach European finals at the same time, it is hardly a freak accident. Like Holland, Belgium was traditionally unimpressive league, dominated by two clubs. Unlike Holland, Belgian football was plagued by financial instability. During the 70s some reforms and tightened rules were tried, the most visible from outside was the enlarged league – a curious move, for other countries in the same financial predicament went the opposite way (Scotland, Austria, and Switzerland reduced their top leagues). Thus, 19 teams played in the 1975-76 season, a weird number, not really making sense. When the dust settled, one thing was immediately obvious: the sharp decline of Standard (Liege) – they finished 8th. Signs of reshaping were detected in the first half of the 70s, but probably this season finally made permanent the new duopoly – no longer Anderelecht – Standard rivalry, but Anderlecht – FC Bruges. With time, Standard somewhat restored its leading position, but only as the third strongest Belgian club. On the other hand, FC Bruges was perhaps taken seriously at last as legitimate contender. They won the championship confidently, with comfortable 4-point difference. Anderlecht finished 2nd, but the champions outscored them by 16 goals: FC Bruges scored 81 goals to Anderlecht’s 65. Of course, the joy in the Bruges camp was huge – it was their 3rd title so far – but there was more to it. If their winning in 1973 was shrugged off as more or less one time wonder (what else could be since there were 53 years between first and second title), the 1976 victory showed consistency: FC Bruges arrived and were to stay on top.

Or may be not… their photo is fun and the kit is cool, but how serious can be a team looking like that? Sponsored by denim jeans manufacturer? Goofy, somehow… Or may be not so goofy… Standing, from left: Mathieu Bollen (assistant-coach), Birger Jensen, Daniel De Cubber, Georges Leekens, René Vandereycken, Eddie Krieger, Ulrik Le Fèvre , Hugo Pieters.
Sitting: Jos Volders, Fons Bastijns, Roger Van Gool, Norbert De Naeghel, Ernst Happel (coach), Julien Cools, Raoul Lambert, Konrad Holenstein, Dirk Sanders.
Ernst Happel, the Austrian coach, who led Feyenoord to the European Champions Cup in 1970, was at the helm. His reputation was not just solid, but still rising – the success with FC Bruges just moved Happel higher, and soon he will be among the few best coaches in the world. His team was impressive as well, although not based on terribly expensive stars. The best known player was Raoul Lambert, one of the top Belgian players at the time. The three foreign players were lesser known: the young Austrian full back Eddie Krieger and two Danes – the goalkeeper Birger Jensen and the winger Ulrik Le Fevre. Like Krieger, Jensen was very young; but unlike the Austrian, he was not a national player of his home country. Le Fevre was solid and well known professional, who came from Borussia (Moenchengladbach). International star he was not and by now he was already fading, but his vast experience was helpful. The rest of the team was not really known outside Belgium, but not for long: some reputations soared precisely this season – Georges Leekens, Rene Vandereycken, Fons Bastijns, Roger van Gool. FC Bruges was no joke.
The season was good for another, smaller, Belgian club as well: KSC Lokeren.
The ‘Tricolores’ had checkered history, more troubles than success, and their latest move fitted the tradition: in 1975 they acquired Wlodzimierz Lubanski. The biggest Polish star surely, but what a risk – the whole transfer was based on his heavy injury, preventing him from playing at the 1974 World Cup. In Poland Lubanski was considered uncurable… which was the whole reason for allowing him to play abroad. Looked like Lokeren got nothing… but the striker recovered and with his help Lokeren had one of their best seasons. They finished 4th, thanks to the ‘goner’. The ‘goofy’ deal suddenly turned out to be a golden egg. Standing, from left: Hogenboom, Verschuren, Somers, Evevaert, Suykerbuyk, Vekkeneers, Novak – coach, Van Lessen, Lubanski, Verheyen, Dalving, De Paepe.
Sitting: Hansen, Ingels, Puis, Derycker – president, Devrindt, De Koning, De Schrijver.
Well, Mr. Derycker has every right to be so big with a lucky strike like Lubanski’s transfer… Apart from the Polish star KSC Lokeren was not much: only Johan Devrindt was quality player – well established national player, who played at 1970 World Cup and the 1972 European Championship final round. However, he was aging. Eventually two other players acquired some fame as Belgian national players – Maurice De Schrijver and especially Rene Verheyen – but it was much later, in the 1980s. Sure, there were two more foreigners, but small caliber – the Danish striker Halfdan Hansen and the Dutch defender Jan De Koning. Derycker was getting fat from Wlodzimierz Lubanski and Johan Devrindt. Mostly from Lubanski, really – one man made a huge difference. It was clear that Lubanski was a player for bigger and better club, and may be the player was very unlucky. Who knows? Communist officials rarely made good transfers and the wellbeing of the players they sold was never a concern for them. But Lubanski was considered finished and just lucky to get professional contract. He was not really expected able to play again… Anyhow, Lubanski deserves admiration for his loyalty: his recovery propelled him among the stars once again and surely he had better options after the 1975-76 season – but he stayed with Lokeren, where it was painfully clear that nothing really big will happen.