Wednesday, December 18, 2013

First division. Clear outsiders at the bottom – two clubs with pathetic records. Only 4 wins each in a league generally playing attacking football. The outsiders were doomed early.

FC Boom finished last with 15 points. Nothing surprising – they rarely played at top level and when they did, the whole aim was escaping relegation. Hide and seek game, not lasting long.

KSV Cercle Brugge took the 17th place with 16 points. Normally, they were stable first-leagers, occasionally coming close to peril, but relegation was not exactly expected from them. Very poor season they played and had to accept the blow: safety was 8 points out of their reach at the end. Relegated clubs are pitied only by their own fans and nobody else, yet, it was a bit sad to see a city derby gone – Cercle Brugge was no longer a match for their neighbours, FC Brugge, but still a loss.

A large group of weak, but untroubled clubs, more or less waited for something better in the future – untroubled by fears of relegation, but having no squads for anything better than lounging in the lower half of the table. Five clubs, the lowest, KV Kortrijk, with 24 points, and highest, Charleroi, with 29 points at 12th place.

Another group occupied the real comfort zone between 11th and 5th place. SK Beveren was 5th with 40 points and KSV Waregem was 11th with 32 points. Rather equal clubs, not really able to do anything else than bumping into and edging each other. Such clubs exist anywhere and perhaps the Belgian 'bulk' was typical – clubs with few either fading or rising stars. Both suppliers and receivers of the top clubs.

KSV Waregem, 11th this season, was typical of this group: standing from left: DeMesmaeker, E. Denorme, A. Saelens, L. Millecamps, J. Dreesen, M. Millecamps.

First row: Giba, M. Devolder, R. Haleydt, H. Delesie, A. Koudizer.

Anonymous squads, having an occasional good player – Luc Millecamps, for instance. Talent was hard to keep, but Luc Millecamps became internationally famous playing for Waregem. For new recruits second division was the likelier source. Giba exemplifies that: he also played for KAA Gent and captained it, which brings the question of reliability of pictorial material: KAA Gent above is from 1977-78 – Zoltan Varga did not play anymore after this season. Waregem's photo is also labeled 1977-78... unless Giba changed clubs in mid-season, something rare and even unlikely at the time, one of the pictures is wrong.

Perhaps the Belgian league was just too large for a small country with small pool of talent – 14 out of 18 first league clubs were entirely out of the race for the title. But it was exciting race – normally, two or three clubs really competed. This years they were four and the race was tight to the very end. And this was the big optimistic change. Anderlecht and FC Brugge were in top form, successful in Europe, and a fair match of the biggest European clubs. Standard (Liege) spent most of the 1970s in decline, but now had a new bright team and was back in the race. And K. Lierse SK, usually a modest club, had a splendid season. These four clubs left the rest in league far behind – the 5th placed was 7 points behind the 4th – but the difference between the champions and the 4th was only 4 points. The quartet played attacking and high-scoring football. The highest number of wins in the rest of the league was 15 – the lowest of the top 4 had 20. The lowest number of goals scored of the top four was 69 – the highest in the rest of the league was 59. Surely, these four clubs outclassed the rest, but in the same time they appeared very up to date clubs, playing open football, not scheming and fearing anybody. Pleasure to watch.

Lierse finished 4th with 47 points. Certainly their squad was short on big talent and may be enthusiasm carried them that far, but it was not a bad team at all.

Unlike most Belgian clubs, Lierse did not depended heavily on foreigners. They had only one – the Portuguese forward Raul Aguas. The real strength was young Belgian talent – Janssens, Leo De Smet, Walter Ceulemans, his younger – only 20-years old – brother Jan Ceulemans and even younger Erwin Vandenbergh (or Van den Bergh), born in 1959. A teenager practically. These group obviously inspired their rather modest teammates and was enough to challenge the big clubs. And, if Lierse was able to keep their stars and add a few more, they had great chance to become really remarkable. The future depended on money and planning, but Lierse was already significant sign of change in Belgian football – a new vintage of excellent players was emerging and already making an impact.

Standard finished with bronze – they ended with 2 points more than Lierse, a point short of second place, and two points short of the title. Historically, this was hardly remarkable year for Standard, but it was a great sign of recovery. The 1970s were bad years for the club – it suffered from long decline, was late to rebuild the aging squad with which they entered the decade, and lost their position as one of the two best Belgian clubs. Given the weakness of the rest of the league, Standard never sunk low, but struggled and not a factor in championship race. This year was entirely different and most importantly – the new young team was shaped and it was clear that these boys were to be going up and up.

Gerets, Renquin, Preud'Homme – the world was yet to hear about them, but these were staple names in the 1980s. The difficult name of the goalkeeper was to trouble fans and journalists until 1996! Obvious talent – Michel Preud'Homme was just 18 in 1977-78 season, who benched the well known Belgian national team keeper Christian Piot. At 30, the best age for goalkeepers, Piot had to give way to a mere teenager – this speak loudly of the qualities of the youngsters in Standard. Eric Gerets already captained the team – another recognition of young quality. But it was not all – Standard was well rounded and had quite a long reliable bench. Still, it was mainly young team – the 22-years old Siguirvinsson from Iceland was also to be very well known in the 1980s. The 24-years old West German striker Harald Nickel was also making a name for himself – he was the top scorer of the season with 22 goals. Like his Belgian teammates and Siguirvinsson he was soon to be asked to play for West Germany – he did not last, unfortunately, unlike his teammates, but still moved from Standard to better contracts in the Bundesliga. These were the great hopes for the future, young talented players already making the skeleton of Standard. They were complimented by competent and experienced bunch – the 28-years old Austrian national team striker Alfred Riedl, who was the best scorer of Belgium in 1974-75; the 31-years old West German Helmuth Graf; Christian Piot, still a prime choice for the Belgian national team; the Yugoslavian Josip Keckes; and the Hungarian defector Yuli Veee (real name Gyula Visneye), who already was statistical nightmare – listed as Hungarian, Belgian, and US American, not to mention the problem with his two names, one of which a whimsical confusion. And not to mention where he really played, for he shuffled between Europe and North America and was found in different clubs in the same year, depending on the month. Lastly, Standard had a very good coach – Robert Waseige – thus, entirely matching Anderlecht and FC Brugge. It was clear Standard was just coming back, was rising, and was to stay and compete for the title for a long time.

Anderlecht finished with silver, thanks to their 50 points. One point better than Standard, one point behind FC Brugge. Anderlecht was flying high – excellent team, carefully adjusted every year, great coach – Raymond Goetals – and great stars.

To go player by player would be redundant – Anderelecht were famous. It was also the year of their second Cup Winners Cup. May be playing both domestic championship and the strenuous final rounds of an European tournament was too much and they had to sacrifice the league title? Hardly a strong argument – FC Brugge was in exactly the same situation. The national team of Holland perhaps had a reason to grumble for not having star players and coach on time for World Cup preparations, but Anderlecht had enough experience and depth to fight for he title along with competing in Europe. It was a 'Dutch team' – Arie Haan, Nico De Bree, Johnny Dusbaba, Rob Rensenbrink, Ronny van Poucke – but the Belgian part was not at all to be dismissed as mere helpers: half of the regular Belgian national team. Add the Dane Benny Nielsen and the Congolese (or Zairean, for his home country was still called Zaire) Jean-Claude Bouvy for 'spice'. Strong, well balanced squad, in its prime. One of the most exciting to watch teams of the time, one of the very top in Europe. To beat them was a privilege. To beat them was not a matter a luck, but a matter of real class.

FC Brugge had it and clinched the title at the end of the exciting race between three great clubs and three great coaches. Lierse was tough opposition too, only not all that famous, so the success of FC Brugge has to be really appreciated – Ernst Hapel was pressured by the Dutch federation to start training Holland for the World Cup. Meantime, FC Brugge had two tournaments to win – the European Champions Cup and the Belgian championship. They lost the European cup, but not in disgrace, and still outfoxed the domestic enemies. It was dramatic victory by a point – Anderlecht had much better goal-difference and equal points were to leave FC Brugge second. The champion's defense left much to be desired – they allowed 48 goals in the 34 season's matches, the worst record among the title contenders. Anderlecht allowed exactly ½ less – only 24. Eleven clubs had equal or better defensive record than the champions – telling only that FC Brugge was shaky in its own half. But they had the best scoring record in the league – 73 goals. An anomaly, when compared to their European performance, clearly marked by tough defense and almost Italian approach: defensive football, waiting for occasional counter-attack. They scored little and hardly allowed any goals in their net. May be that was all because of Hapel – his team had two faces, depending on the opposition. Credit to the great tactician, but the players were to be credited too – for understanding and executing very different tactics, changing from one to the other in a single weak. Worthy champions of wonderful and dramatic race. And more – it was their third consecutive title. Belgium was theirs.

Standing from left: Jensen, Bastijns, Volders, De Cubber, Leekens, Vandereycken.

Crouching: Soerensen, Cools, Lambert, Sanders, Courant.

Another team no needing much introduction, but deserving perhaps one more look:

Lovely Puma kit – their home blue and away white. The huge strange numbers of the sponsor's name, looking more like uniform element than advertizement. In the battle of kit makers, Puma topped Adidas in Belgium. As for the team, just like Anderlecht, FC Brugge continued to shape its squad, thus making one more interesting opposition – if Anderlecht were Dutch, FC Brugge were Danish: to Jensen and Le Fevre (who departed in 1977, but captained FC Brugge the previous two years) one more was added – Soerensen. The Danes were not as famous as the Dutch, but they bested them three years in a row. Of course they were not alone – big group of Belgian national team players: Lambert, Bastijns, Cools, Leekens, Volders, Van der Eycken; the defector from Hungary and former national team player of the same country Ku; the Austrian national team player Krieger, going to the World Cup finals soon; the English striker Davies; the former Holland-Under 21 goalkeeper Barth. Coached by Hapel, FC Brugge firmly established itself in Europe and Belgium.