Belgium’s appearance in the Euro 1980 final in Rome and their later run to the World Cup semi-final at Mexico 1986 were no accidents. Belgian football had experienced a renaissance of sorts, beginning in the 1970s when their club sides made significant advances in European competition. Though they were eclipsed by their neighbours from the Netherlands, the performance of the Belgian national side and club teams was only slightly less noteworthy.
At the club level, the greatest manifestation of Belgian might came with the performance of Anderlecht, who almost monopolised the Cup Winners’ Cup between 1976 and 1978 with two victories in three consecutive final appearances. This Belgian boom can best be seen in the resurgence of two of the country’s oldest footballing institutions: Club Brugge and Anderlecht.
When Ernst Happel took over in Bruges in 1974 the Austrian presided over a period of unprecedented success, winning three league titles and a domestic cup in his four-year tenure. In the capital, Brussels, another mover and shaker was taking Belgian football’s profile onto a different plane altogether.
Raymond Goethals, who relieved the Dutchman Hans Croon of command at the conclusion of the 1975/76 season, took Anderlecht – as Happel took Brugge – and shook up the Belgian game so that this Low Countries amalgam of Flemish and Francophone exoticism sat at the top table of European football. At the heart of the continent politically, Belgium ascended to the locus of power in the footballing sense too. Guy Thys, national team coach, would ultimately cash in on this club level revolution when his side finished runners-up at the 1980 European Nations Cup in Italy.
When Happel’s Brugge finished runners-up to Molenbeek in the 1974/75 top flight, his team qualified for the following season’s UEFA Cup. Hans Croos’ Anderlecht triumphed in the domestic cup, defeating Royal Antwerp 1-0 in the Brussels final, thus ensuring their passage to the next season’s Cup Winners’ Cup. By the end of the following season, in 1975-76, both Anderlecht and Brugge had made it to their respective continental finals. Whereas Brugge came off second best to Liverpool, Anderlecht defeated West Ham 4-2 in an enthralling contest in the Heysel Stadium.
On the domestic front, Brugge pipped Anderlecht to the title by a four-point margin, finishing on 52 points to their rivals’ 48. And so, for a few seasons at least, a pattern was set: domestically, Anderlecht would push but Brugge would just nudge ahead.
One of the most enthralling chapters in Ulrich Hesse-Lichtenberger’s account of the German game Tor! is his vivid recapitulation of the Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach rivalry which took place throughout the 1970s and early-80s. Bayern were cast as the remorseless automations, stomping down on rivals as they accumulated trophy after trophy. Lichtenberger saw in Star Wars an allegory for this Germanic rivalry, arguing that Bayern were the very personification of the Dark Side and were no less than an “evil empire” incarnate. Against all hope, the luck went Bayern’s way, whereas the purer Gladbach side were innocent bystanders, robbed of their right to glory by the sinister brute force from Bavaria.
Read | Electric dreams and football teams: when KV Mechelen became a Belgian powerhouse
The Belgian domestic rivalry was not quite like this, of course. Both Brugge and Anderlecht played comfortable possession football which was technically adroit. In Happel, however, Brugge had a manager whose methods were decidedly more Teutonic, who employed means that were more closely aligned to efficiency and organisation. In 1976, 1977 and 1978 his teams edged their Brussels rivals to the title. In 1977 Brugge also trumped Anderlecht to the cup in a thrilling 4-3 victory, ensuring a domestic double for Happel. It was for his near misses in European competition that Happel’s time with Brugge is more widely remembered, though.
When, in 1976, Brugge carried off the domestic league title and narrowly lost to Liverpool over two legs in the UEFA Cup final, Bob Paisley’s team went on to Rome the following year and secured the Champions’ Clubs Cup itself. With the demise of Ajax and then Bayern Munich, Brugge were not far off the Gold Standard themselves at this point.
With the Jupiler League trophy secure in the cabinet once more in 1977, Happel’s band made such strides in the continent’s elite competition in 1978 that they reconvened with Liverpool for a date in Wembley’s final on 10 May. Sadly for Happel, he was unable to replicate his 1970 success with Feyenoord as the European Cup remained in residence in the Anfield trophy room for another year, after a Kenny Dalglish goal had separated the two teams on the night
Anderlecht had more joy on the continental stage than Brugge, winning two Cup Winners’ Cup finals in 1976 and 1978. Whereas Brugge were assured and efficient, Anderlecht played with a swagger. Croon, initially, then Goethals had assembled a team of eye-watering creative talent. Four Belgian cups captured in 1972, ‘73, ‘75 and ‘76 did not translate to league title glory during the period, though. Indeed, the team did not lift the league at all between 1974 and 1981. There were a succession of near-misses instead as Anderlecht ran Brugge close in three consecutive seasons from ‘76 to ‘78.
With the Belgian league title proving elusive, Anderlecht’s glory came in Europe where they produced some of the most sublime moments of the decade. Following their glorious victory against West Ham in 1976, a season in which they added the Belgian Cup to their collection with a 4-0 thumping of Lierse in the final, they reappeared as reigning champions the following season. Anderlecht almost held on to the European bauble that year too.
In 1977, though, it was Hamburg’s turn to hoist the trophy. Bested in 1977, Anderlecht were back in ‘78, routing Austria Vienna in Paris by a 4-0 margin. If anything, however, the two performances which best encapsulated the Anderlecht magic during the period came in the Super Cup wins of 1976 and 1978.
Read | The last time Belgium lit up the World Cup: a run to the 1986 semi-finals
In the 1976 fixture, held over two legs as was the custom, the champions of Europe, Bayern Munich, faced the winners of the supposed third tier competition, the Cup Winners’ Cup. When Anderlecht went down 2-1 in the opening leg it looked as though the trophy was heading Munich’s way. In an extraordinary performance in the second leg, Anderlecht played Bayern off the park, skewering the Bavarians 4-1. Two goals from Rensenbrink and one each from Arie Haan and Franoise van der Elst were evidence of an extraordinary attacking force. Over the two legs, Gerd Müller’s three goals counted for nothing as Anderlecht secured the trophy 5-3 on aggregate.
Two seasons later and it was Liverpool, reigning back-to-back European champions, who were put to the sword. The build up to Frankie Vercauteren’s headed goal in the Brussels leg of the tie was a moment of pure Rensenbrink ingenuity and an example of the kind of trickery that left many in the game with the view that Rensenbink – the “snake man” to the initiated – was Johan Cruyff’s technical equal.
In a typically sinuous incursion into the opposition penalty area, Rensenbrink began with his back to goal outside the edge of the box. Swivelling 180 degrees, he then jinked this way and that, riding tackles and dribbling past defenders like his great contemporary George Best, before reaching the touchline to deliver a perfect lofted cross for Vercauteren’s head.
Like Best, like Ryan Giggs and like a taller, more angular Messi, Rensenbrink had the ability to drift away from markers as if the ball was tied to the end of his boot. As Raymond Goethals remarked: “He was as good as Cruyff, but completely different. Cruyff was a coach on the field; Rensenbrink was an introvert.”
Although Franz Beckenbauer walked away with the Ballon d’Or in 1976, David Winner’s view is that Rensenbrink’s peak came in the same year and that, for a time, the introverted Dutchman was the best player in the world. His compatriot and former Anderlecht teammate Jan Mulder was another who expressed a similar view: “Robbie Rensenbrink was as good as Cruyff – only in his mind was he not. He was a little like George Best, a great technician, a wonderful dribbler. He was better than Piet Keizer.”
Rensenbrink, Haan, van der Elst: as luminously talented a trio as any that a European club side fielded during the decade. For a brief period in 1976, they were also joined by a graduate of the English school of mavericks in the form of Duncan McKenzie. Brugge employed their own Englishman, the big striker Roger Davies, captured from Derby County for the 1976/77 season. Relishing the change and undaunted by a different habitat, Davies went on to score 21 goals in 34 appearances and ended up as the league’s Player of the Year. Both sides evolved in incremental steps, with Happel’s Brugge casting the wider recruitment net.
By the time of the 1978 European Cup final, Brugge fielded seven Belgians in Fons Bastijns, Georges Leekens, Gino Maes, Julien Cools, Rene Vandereycken and Dany De Cubber. From outside came two Danes in ‘keeper Birger Jensen and striker Jan Sorenson, while Austrian defender Ed Krieger and Hungarian forward Lajos Kű made up the starting line-up. Happel was unafraid to ring the changes when he felt them necessary, though.
In 1976, star striker Roger van Gool departed for FC Köln, becoming the Bundesliga’s first DM 1 Million-player in the process. Though van Gool was just 26 and approaching his peak, Happel sized the opportunity to cash in and rebuild his forward line. The old warhorse Raoul Lambert, however, was kept on until his retirement in 1980 at the age of 38.
Duncan McKenzie’s brief sojourn aside, Anderlecht’s personnel during this period was exclusively drawn from Holland and Belgium. Goalkeeper Jan Ruiter was joined by Dutch compatriots Arie Haan, Peter Ressel and, of course, Robbie Rensenbrink. Elsewhere, Gilbert van Binst, Erwin van den Daele, Jean Thissen and Hugo Broos made up a wholly Belgian defence. Franky “The Little Prince” Vercauteren, Ludo Coek and Francois van der Elst made up the team, while the 37-year-old veteran midfielder Jean Dockx, capable of adding extra heft, still made his presence felt with intermittent stretches in the side.
When Beveren beat Charleroi 2-0 in the 1978 Belgian Cup, Anderlecht’s 70s glamour period was drawing to a close, the vanquishing of Liverpool in the Super Cup notwithstanding. The lure of American lucre, in the guise of the NASL, saw the departure of Rensenbrink to Portland Timbers in 1980. Anderlecht came back with a league win in 1981, while a UEFA Cup victory came later in 1983.
Read | Ernst Happel: the quiet Austrian who conquered Europe
For a brief period in the 1970s Belgian football was as close to the top of the European tree as it would ever be. The supposedly third tier competition that was the source of Anderlecht’s success was anything but, though. Along with its sibling, the UEFA Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup was a thrilling, genuinely challenging and egalitarian competition where established names vied for glory with the embryonic and, yes, the occasional wild card, too.
The 1981 final, when Dinamo Tbilisi were pitted against Carl Zeiss Jena, was a classic example of a time when the whole of Europe could find representation in the end of season showpiece finals. This was an era where team development held sway, where youth networks and local scouting would provide the bulk of a team’s line-up. Player acquisition still occurred, of course, where a big name was added to an existing team. Anderlecht’s acquisition of Arie Haan from Ajax in 1975, as the great Amsterdam team was breaking up, was a notable case in point, as were Brugge and Anderlecht’s signings of Roger Davies and Duncan McKenzie respectively.
These were exceptions rather than the rule, however, and the plutocrats’ procession that masquerades as the modern incarnation of the European Cup was some way off in the future at this point in time. Interestingly, every winner of the Champions Clubs’ Cup from that distant decade of the 1970s relied on local talent for the bulk of its team. Feyenoord, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest drew heavily on the local – or at least national – networks of scouting, recruitment and player acquisition to build teams that conquered Europe.
Anderlecht’s glory period of 1976 to ‘78 came at a time when they were continually hard on the heels of Brugge in pursuit of domestic silverware, and the Brussels club can rightly lay claim to have been one of the great sides of the era. Only a league championship victory secured entry to the European Champion Clubs’ Cup as it was then known. As a result, the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup were populated by teams of genuine quality, as only marginal differences in domestic consistency often made the difference between entry to the Champions Cup and a place in the other UEFA competitions.
It is perhaps ironic that the inaugural winner of the Champions League was a man whose Anderlecht team of the ‘70s were denied entry to the competition despite having played with such verve during his tenure. Raymond Goethals’ victory as coach of Marseille on that May Munich night 23 years ago came along as the old European Cup was morphing into something entirely different. From its original knock-out format, the Champion Clubs’ Cup developed into the UEFA Champions League, a behemoth that eventually devoured the Cup Winners’ Cup along the way and downgraded the UEFA Cup too.
For Belgian football, though, Guy Thys, the wily old coach of the national team, was a grateful beneficiary of Brugge and Anderlecht’s success, as his team came away from Euro 80 with silver medals. Thys’ 1980 vintage contained five players who hailed from either Anderlecht or Bruges as Walter Meeuws, Rene Vandereycken, Francois van der Elst, Jan Ceulemans and Ronny Martens joined forces with their compatriots from Beerschot, Lokeren, Royal Antwerp, Standard Liège, Waragem, Molenbeek and Beringem.
Six summers later, with Guy Thys still in charge, amid the altitude and humidity of the World Cup in Mexico, another Belgian team, one that had evolved under the on-field leadership of Jan Ceulemans of Brugge, Enzo Scifo and Eric Gerets, went on to play their part in an even more heroic series of displays before falling at the semi-final stage in the Estadio Azteca.
By Gareth Bland @peakdistrictman