Thursday, June 11, 2009

Belgian Jupiler Pro League Review

Justin Paul reviews the Belgian First Division football league at the seasons end.

Not a Country with a Football League, but a Football League trying hold together a Country

Il y a en Belgique des Wallons et des Flamands. Il n'y a pas de Belges.
In Belgium there are Walloons and Flemings. There are no Belgians.

-Jules Destrée - early 20th century Walloon Lawyer

In a country lacking many shared institutions, some Americans will be aware there was a Belgian League, probably due to Oguchi Onyewu's role for repeat Champions Standard Liege. It was a clumsy foul by Onyewu that led to a penalty kick for Racing Genk in the last match of the regular season. Had Liege's keeper Sinan Bolat not made a crucial save, the title would have moved north to Brussels to Anderlecht that very day. The drama was added in this instance because the Turkish keeper had played for Racing Genk one season earlier.

Anchored by a solid defense with Onyewu, the emerging midfielder Axel Witsel (winner of Young Belgian player of the year in 2008), and the goals of free kick specialist Milan Jovanovic up top, Liege were able to cap off an excellent repeat title by holding off RSC Anderlecht in a two legged final. It would be the aforementioned Witsel with a penalty to seal the win 2-1 on aggregate. Witsel has credited much of his development to playing with Everton's Marouane Fellaini in recent years at the club, and could follow his former team mate on to a bigger stage.

Standard's coach László Bölöni (an ethnic Hungarian from Romania) is no stranger to success having won the Portuguese Double with Sporting Lisbon in 2001 and coached Stade Rennes to best ever French League ranking of 4th in 2005. Beating Anderlecht this season was no small task, as the club continued to progress with the talents of Argentina central midfielder Lucas Bilgia and Moroccan-Belgian attacking midfielder Mbark Boussoufa. Boussoufa won the Belgian Footballer of the Year Award and Belgian Young Player of the year award in 2006, and won the Player of the Year again in 2008. This year, he picked up the Belgian Ebony Shoe Award for best African player.

It should be no surprise for a mid tier league in a country with lots of young African talent, that such an award has existed in Belgium since 1992. Past winners have included Ahmed Mido, Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany, all very fine company indeed. For Mido in particular, he made the jump from Ebony Shoe winner to Ajax player the very next year. Of course Celestine Babayaro also won that award as well, so no prophecies yet.. Perhaps Boussoufa should leave Brussels as soon as possible. He was arrested at a police check at a Brussels Cafe for not having his proper picture ID on him this past April. Maybe the cops were Club Brugge supporters?

There have been some darker incidents on this year's campaign. During a match between Genk and Turbize, Flemish fans chanted Walloons are Shit. A second division match would produce chants accusing Walloons as being pedophiles, a reference to infamous child molester Marc Dutroux, himself a native of Walloonia. Belgium was founded by a French aristocracy, and historically Flemish north was poorer and had to fight for rights for education in their language. Today, the situation is reversed. The once self-confident and coal industry fueled Walloonia is economically depressed compared to Flanders In the early part of the 20th century, Flemish nationalists would interrupt French church services to make a linguistic point. Now, with the more efficient post industrial economy, the disruptions of a linguistic underdog have turned into outright mockery of Walloonia.

Only 3 of the 18 clubs in the top flight (along with Standard de Liege, there is Royal Charleroi, and Excelsior Mouscron) from from Wallonia. Brussels has become an 85% French speaking city (it was 95% Flemish speaking at the time Belgium was formed in the 1830's), much to the dismay of Flemish nationalists. Yet, Anderlecht's roots are not in Walloon identity, but as a bilingual club with vague and diluted Flemish origins. So for Walloonia, a region derided by it Northern half, and considered parochial and bad french speakers by its by its Francophone cousins in Brussels, Standard de Liege has given back some pride and confidence.

Meanwhile the Belgian League persists, and continues to sell on quality players to higher profile league, particularly those with roots in Africa. Michel Platini's attempt to promote a Benelux League (in which presumably the Luxembourg representative club would get in on pure charity), were rubbished in both Brussels and Amsterdam. The Belgian League might be overwhelmingly Flanders based, but it is one of the country's few national institutions. In contrast, there is no singular Belgian Arts Academy or Science Academcy, but one of each for both language group. Anderlecht are still the biggest club, and their ambigious identity makes the football politics a little less binary. Even still, Standard de Liege's victory for a second straight year adds credibility to the Belgian League as an institution with a future in all parts of this divided country.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer Posts Older Posts