FAN'S EYE VIEW No 195 Belgian football

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The Independent Online
We're accustomed to it all by now. After all, the question is always the same: "Why Belgian football?" Which is usually said in varying tones of stunned bewilderment, hostile contempt or amused tolerance.

Admitting to an active interest in any aspect of the Benelux countries is, of course, strictly uncool. The obvious reply to such a question is "Why the hell not?" Belgium is unassuming, accessible and underrated, and what's more tempting than this? Antwerp, Belgium's third city, is home to a bar which sells no less than 800 different beers, all of which are eminently acceptable to those fine folk at Camra.

Both of us stumbled upon the joys of Belgian footie during the early 80s in the heady days of Pfaff, Gerets and Ceulemans, an era where overgrown facial hair, dropped shoulders and socks rolled around the ankles were the familiar sight. The Belgian national side established itself, in our eyes, as embodying the best aspects of British and Continental football: an intriguing mixture of skill and physical prowess coupled with an endearing defensive ineptness - attributes that have been the hallmark of Les Diables Rouges ever since.

Performances of the highest calibre lurk long in the memory: who could forget those bleary-eyed long-nighters of Mexico '86, especially Belgium's monumental clash with the USSR in Leon, where Guy Thys's heroes triumphed 4-3 after extra time, despite Igor Belanov's sublime hat-trick.

Club football was a natural progression, introducing us to the likes of Club Bruges and Standard Liege. Then on to Anderlecht, who lost to Spurs in the 1983-84 Uefa Cup final despite being the holders, before we plummeted into the realms of obscurity where the deciphering of club names made frequent bed-time reading. Little did we know that we were developing early signs of Belgomania - an intimate knowledge of just why Waterschei and Winterslag combined and the exact biological breakdown of RWD Molenbeek, while attempting to explain why a mocked-by-many country the size of Belgium can boast such an inventive collection of club names in its footballing empire. Take a bow Erp Kwerps, Boom and Old Steamer Zeebrugge. Sad, but true.

Then, in 1988, there was KV Mechelen. A team that nobody outside of Belgium had heard of had gone and won themselves a major European trophy. We marvelled at the sight of Piet den Boer and the magical Israeli Eli Ohana, as Aad de Mos's valiant Cup-Winners' Cup-winning heroes defeated the mighty Ajax of Amsterdam at Strasbourg's Stade de la Meinau. And how could we ever forget the beard of the chairman, John Cordier?

Venturing on to Belgium's eclectic bunch of stadiums, such as De Bosuil, home to Royal Antwerp, the oldest club in Continental Europe with similarly aged facilities. Where else would you expect to find a large monolith containing 800 business seats rising behind a goal , emanating all the atmosphere of a concrete block? All the more bizarre when you consider several other parts of the ground are cordoned off. Charleroi's Mambour verges on the contemporary, with its pioneering use of neon advertising, while Mechelen's old-fashioned Achter de Kazerne continues to enchant us with its chocolate-box mixture of terracing and seats.

Then there are the delightful pre-match lunches at stadium-bordering restaurants of pink decor where well-to-do Belgians contemplate the proceedings over generous servings of oyster clams and accompanying shots of Duvel. The genial atmosphere is continued inside the ground where trayloads of Stella are often passed from front to back of overpopulated terraces throughout the duration of the match.

Belgian football has proven to be a hotbed of style indifference, with Cercle Bruge's yearly stroll down the catwalk providing annual embarrassment. Excessive experimentation with the colour green has often resulted in outlandish designs more reminiscent of army camouflage uniform. Unknowingly, AA Ghent's 85-86 jerseys even resembled Tesco carrier bags. But if we discard Mechelen's current offering that doubles as a test transmission card (like their performances), we can thank Royal Antwerp for resurrecting style consciousness with their recent Ajax-influenced classic.

If all else fails why not indulge yourself in an entirely acceptable blood sport: that of hating Anderlecht, who are the Manchester United of the Belgian end of the Low Countries. As Waregem and Cercle fans, we congratulate ourselves on the fact that our clubs are unlikely ever to be in a position to buy their way to success, unlike Les Mauves. Then again our clubs are unlikely to win anything in the foreseeable future.

But that won't stop us. Other fans may struggle to comprehend, but the lure of the world's finest chocolate is difficult to resist. And we haven't even mentioned the surreal underwear museum. Convinced? Then why not let a little piece of Belgium into your life. After all, everything is beautiful... in its own way.

l Diable Rouge - The Belgian football fanzine, PO Box 10141, London N14 6SY