‘Don’t recognize my club anymore’
Ronald van Dam
Editor and commentator for NOS Sports
Ronald van Dam
Editor and commentator for NOS Sports
There were times when soccer fans pronounced the name of Royal Sport Club Anderlecht with respect. But the “great sir” of yesteryear seems hard at work becoming the laughing stock of Belgian soccer. If it isn’t already.
The illustrious club from Brussels, tonight (9 p.m.) opposing AZ in the Conference League quarterfinals, is currently only ninth in the Pro League. “I don’t recognize my club anymore,” says former Anderlecht player Jan Mulder.
Ninth! Constant Vanden Stock would turn in his grave. Under the former president, who died in 2008 and was the face of the club for many years, Anderlecht captured 10 Belgian national titles between 1971 and 1996, the cup seven times, the European Cup II twice (1976 and 1978) and the UEFA Cup in 1983.
Anderlecht was always known as an – in Mulder’s words – “elegant club. Magnificent footballers like Paul Van Himst, Luc Nillis (club’s all-time top scorer with 317 goals), Marc Degryse, Romelu Lukaku and Vincent Kompany have worn Anderlecht’s purple-white.
And top Dutch footballers like Mulder, Rob Rensenbrink, Arie Haan and John Bosman also played for the now 114-year-old club from the district of the same name in Brussels. From 2003 to 2007 Anderlecht was even a regular in the group stage of the Champions League.
That’s where the supporters of Mauve et Blanc today can only dream of. The last national championship dates from the 2016/2017 season, the last time Anderlecht won the Belgian Cup was 15 years ago. And for the past three seasons, the club remained deprived of European soccer. Looked at that way, reaching the quarterfinals of the Conference League is already quite something.
“Five years ago at Anderlecht they would still have turned their noses up at something like the Conference League,” says Filip Joos, soccer commentator at VRT in Belgium. “But look at Feyenoord last season. In the end, it’s still nice when you get to play the final in Albania, even if it’s just the Conference League. It’s the stage where fallen giants can shine.”
Where things went wrong for Anderlecht? Joos: “It started under the presidency of Roger Vanden Stock, son of club legend Constant Vanden Stock, who tried to continue his father’s legacy. But times changed. You have to understand that Anderlecht could no longer keep up with the European top.”
“But it wasn’t just that. Mismanagement and cronyism at the management level, an aging player core, no more income from outgoing transfers, a kind of drought in youth training and, as a result, major financial concerns.”
“What on earth happened there?” wonders Mulder, who played for Anderlecht from 1965 through 1972 and won four Belgian championships with the club. “Dubious brokers, dubious practices, debts and former top manager Herman van Holsbeeck who is being prosecuted along with several others for allegedly overcharging the new owner,” he lists.
“Listening to my friends and bystanders, it’s all barely comprehensible.”
That new owner is Marc Coucke, who became rich in the pharmaceutical industry. He bought Anderlecht in 2017. Joos: “A flamboyant man who, as owner of KV Oostende, had the habit of singing schlagers in the business club just one minute after the final signal. Coucke soon found out that he couldn’t do that at a fancy club like Anderlecht and put forward his friend Wouter Vandenhaute as president.”
According to Joos, for Vandenhaute, who amassed his fortune as a TV producer, it was a dream come true. “He is an incredibly good lobbyist, who is in between everything. But also Vandenhaute has since stepped down as executive chairman. So now you’re left with a flamboyant owner who can’t be his flamboyant self and an executive chairman who can’t execute what his whole being is all about anyway. The club is in that vacuum.”
Technically, Anderlecht is now led by two Danes: sporting director Jesper Fredberg, who previously held the position at Panathinaikos, and coach Brian Riemer, former assistant coach at Premier League club Brentford. Mulder: “Coucke wanted Vincent Kompany as trainer, but Vandenhaute made him leave again. And now there are two Danes in charge. That may sound contemptuous, when I say it like that. I don’t mean it that way, but still…”
Mulder thinks the club’s name has been up for grabs. “Little boys used to want to play soccer at Anderlecht. That desire is rapidly waning. The elegance is gone. All that stuff tarnishes my past.”
“OK, I’m not Anderlecht, but when I talk to a club icon like Paul Van Himst, I sense the same in him. Look at Germany, where big names like Kaiserslautern and HSV have fallen into oblivion. If Anderlecht is not careful, it will go that way too.”
Club Brugge the club
Joos is less negative. “I see Anderlecht competing for the title again in five years, although Club Brugge has taken up the torch as the club of Belgium. Anderlecht has always had a good youth training, but not every youth player has the level. And sometimes they leave too early, like Jeremy Doku who left for Rennes. Not good for him, not good for Rennes and not good for Anderlecht.”
On Anderlecht’s chances against AZ, Mulder said, “AZ hasn’t been the best in recent weeks, but the club is well managed, both technically and athletically. They play beautiful, attacking soccer.”
Joos: “There are some bright spots at Anderlecht. Zeno Debast is playing well. Bart Verbruggen is definitely your new goalkeeper for Orange. And Jan Vertonghen is doing better than expected. You know, Anderlecht always wants to play beautiful soccer. But now they understand that in Europe they can play less beautiful. Just not ‘the style of the house’ then.”