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Illustration by Federico Manasse

Tall and rangy, socks rolled down, and with a hypnotic control of the ball that seemed at odds with his physicality, Jan Ceulemans was a footballing conundrum that many defences found impossible to work out. Named by Pelé in his list of the 125 greatest living footballers, Ceulemans remains Belgium’s most capped player with 96 appearances, half of those as captain. 

The year was 1980. AC Milan had just been relegated from Serie A due to their part in the Totonero scandal, while Ceulemans had starred for the Belgian national side, who had reached the final of the European Championships at the expense of the hosts, Italy, that summer. Milan were looking for a morale-boosting signing, and they had identified Ceulemans as their number one target.

Ceulemans, however, tended to take his big career decisions the same way as he approached a goalkeeper. His hips would go in one direction, convincing his opponent of his intentions, but instead, almost like a slaloming skier, he would use his knees to devastating effect, propelling himself in the opposite direction. In the summer of 1980, AC Milan were left sat on the turf, wondering just what had occurred before their very eyes. Ceulemans went to AC Milan, agreed terms in principal, posed for photos with the Rossoneri hierarchy, then promptly went back to Belgium and changed his mind on the transfer.

Ceulemans had been here before. Three years earlier, he was presented with the chance to leave his hometown club, Lierse S.K, for either of the two Belgian powerhouses, Anderlecht or Club Brugge, who were locked in a heated battle for his signature.

Favouring the feeling he got on his visit to Brugge, he committed himself to the 1977 double winners, ahead of the opportunity to team up at Anderlecht with the electric Rob Rensenbrink. The one condition that Ceulemans attached to the deal was that he would be allowed one last season on-loan with Lierse. Brugge, in their eagerness to beat Anderlecht to the punch, reluctantly agreed. Just what difference Ceulemans would have made to the Brugge 1978 European Cup campaign was forever lost, as they reached the final, where they were defeated at Wembley by Bob Paisley’s Liverpool.

Original Series  |  The 50

Ceulemans spent a remarkable 13-years in Bruges, winning three league titles and two domestic cups. There was a defined split to the successes he achieved with them, as the club was in the ascendancy during the beginning and end of the 1980s, rises which were separated by a lull in their fortunes, which had included a flirtation with relegation.

Despite the domestic successes, European glory remained elusive. A run to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup came in 1988, where 10-man Brugge were defeated by Espanyol in heartbreaking fashion when the Catalan club scored the winning goal in the 119th minute. Ceulemans, effusive during the first leg, was missing for the second leg. It was as close as he got to a major European final.

Happy within his surroundings, Ceulemans signed a seven-year contract. Interest from Serie A drifted his way once more, as Lazio made tentative enquiries about his availability. At the time, it didn’t matter to him, and only now, in retrospect, does he lament not having taken the opportunities offered to him, to test his undoubted skills on the biggest club stage in Europe.

It was instead on the international stage with Belgium that he displayed his talents to the world. Beyond Euro 80, he went to three successive World Cups, captaining them during their run to the semi-finals of Mexico 86 and encountering none of the divisive issues that other nations did when squads were assembled that contained multiple and defined club power bases.

Ceulemans was at ease playing alongside Belgium’s powerful Anderlecht contingent of Enzo Scifo, Erwin Vandenbergh, Rene Vandereycken and Franky Vercauteren. His laid-back personality made that possible, and that it was a Spanish side driven by club factions that Belgium defeated in the quarter-finals is quite telling when assessing the comparative harmony in the Belgian camp. 

At the age of 33, Ceulemans had one last roll of the international dice. At Italia 90, he climbed from the bench in their opening game to energise his nation against South Korea. Keeping his place in the side for each game beyond, Ceulemans hit the post against England in Bologna, when they were beaten, despite being the better team.

In an era when Belgium are once again on the up, the one thing they lack is a natural heir to Jan Ceulemans, the nation’s most silky, audacious and consistent midfielder in history 

Writer  |  Steven Scragg  

Editor  |  Matt Gault