This month the most detestable man in football is facing his fears. We’ve stuck him on a train at St Pancras, armed with only a Dictaphone, a notepad and three phrasebooks, and await with baited breath his report on another of Europe’s top leagues. This time he’s heading to a country he’s very familiar with; a country he’s spent his so-called career fighting against; a country he considers his arch-enemy. Like some kind of end of level boss, this month Vile Barrage will be giving his thoughts on the First Division of Belgium. Behind enemy lines and in the shadow of the European Union, will our man crack? Will he resist running naked around the streets of Brussels armed with a flaming passport? Will he, hope beyond hope, meet a swift and watery end? Knowing our luck, its very doubtful.
“ I’m on my way to Belgium, which as we all know is made up. By which I mean, it’s a country made up of three regions of course! Brussels (spits), Wallonia (which is where they should have housed the European Union if you catch my drift), and stupid sexy Flanders. Also, Belgium is an artificial construction as a nation, and a prototype for the equally artificial nation of the EU. It’s a non-country. As my old friend Yves Leterme once said, the only things that hold Belgium together are beer and football. Well luckily I’m being paid to go and watch some footer, and I’m damn thirsty. Now it says here that the league season has actually finished in Belgium, which makes this whole trip seem like a bit of a waste of time really. Oh, no hang on. They’ve split it into two sections, and they want me to look at the Championship group. Well that sounds rather jolly. I do despair having to go and watch those teams struggling near the bottom of the league, with some dinosaur in the dugout trying to revive a failed career and a group of prima donnas prancing around and falling over on the pitch every five minutes. Give me an afternoon at my beloved Selhurst Park any day! Well, I’m off the Eurostar now (when will they brick that blasted tunnel up?), so I’m heading for my first stop. Testicles, spectacles, wallet and watch!
For my first stop I’m in Bruges, which reminds me of one of my favourite films – The Nun’s Story, starring the lovely Audrey Hepburn. I was awfully fascinated by nuns in my youth. The forbidden fruit. Anyway, Bruges isn’t quite as awful as I’d first feared. There’s plenty of canals – good for discarding the dead bodies of unelected bureaucrats – and a delightful market square. I even stopped for a spot of lunch, some of Belgium’s famous “chips and mayo”. Absolutely delicious I must say, and all washed down nicely with a little bottle of Tripel. I tell you what, not all bad. Now look, I’m not Gloria Hunniford, as much as I’d like to be for one afternoon at least, so lets get down to business. Club Brugge are the favourites for the title this year, and if you’re shocked you shouldn’t be – they’ve won the damn thing 14 times, and came second 22 times. Quite a feat when you compare my record – I’ve never come second. They’ve currently got a healthy lead at the top of the six team table, and it’s going to take an almighty effort from their competitors to catch them. The squad’s a nice mix of youth and experience, with former Burnley frontman Jelle Vossen leading the line, while up and coming Belgian centre-back Jordi Vanlerberghe is slowly making a name for himself in defence. American ‘keeper Ethan Horvath, too, has enjoyed a breakout campaign at the Jan Breydel Stadium. The star man this season, though, has been Malian striker Abdoulay Diaby. Signed from Lille back in 2015, Diaby has been banging the goals in for Brugge ever since, and his 11 strikes this season have fired the Blauw-Zwarts to within touching distance of a fifteenth league title. Good on you Abdoulaye!
Where are we off to next then? Oh no. Surely not. Oh good grief. We’re in Brussels. Not the main bit, thankfully. The last think I need is to be bumping into Jean-Claude Juncker and all his sad mates. No, we’re in the district of Anderlecht and, while it’s not as cool, hip, trendy or happening as Bruges, there’s still plenty of nice architecture here, and the locals are a great bunch. Many even greeted me with a two-fingered salute, which I presume is some kind of Belgian sign of respect, upon my arrival. After having a wander round the cobbled streets, there was just enough time for a plate of ‘Chips and Mayo’ and a glass of Tripel before making my way to the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium. Now then, this lot are seriously good. Do you know how I know? They’ve won 34 league titles! THIRTY FOUR! That’s a lot of champagne, which no doubt the British tax payer is footing the bill for. They finished the main season in second, some twelve points behind Club Brugge, and they’ve not proven themselves difficult to beat so far this season – seven defeats in thirty games is piss poor for a team with designs on the title, and that’s surely down to their defence – far and away the worst in the championship playoffs. Much of that could be down to Matz Sels, their on loan goalkeeper from Newcastle. I’ve heard on the grapevine that this goalie couldn’t catch influenza – possibly some kind of secret immunity drug those lot in Brussels keep to themselves. On the plus side, they’ve enjoyed the services of young Henry Onyekuru this year, despite the fact Everton paid plenty of money for him in the summer, while their Pole in front of goal is Łukasz Teodorczyk, who signed permanently at the start of the season having spent last year on loan with the Purple and Whites from Dynamo Kiev, and has added another ten goals to his tally. Now Anderlecht’s one to watch is Leander Dendoncker. A dynamic defensive midfielder, the 22 year old has been scouted by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, and Hein Vanhaezebrouck has built his team around the youngster this season. Where will Anderlecht finish? Well I don’t think it’ll be first and, to be honest, with such a leaky defence I think they’ll struggle for second.
Next up, Gent. Or Ghent. One of the two. These plucky upstarts are nipping on the tails of the top two, and they may just cause a surprise. Speaking of surprises – what a lovely little city! Stunning architecture, gorgeous riverside, and the chips! My word, such excellent chips. I won’t knock the beer, either. I tell you, there’s plenty wrong with Belgium, but you can’t knock the cuisine, booze, architecture, culture, atmosphere or people. After a quick wander round The Gravensteen – a marvelous castle, let me tell you – it’s time to check in on the Buffalos. They may have only won the league once, but it was recently which, if you ask me, counts for something. They’ve got a Native American on their badge, absolutely no idea what that’s about but you can’t knock a team for being a little on the wacky side. Gent are the first really multi-national side I’ve come across so far – hey, the World is a rainbow, why not savour every colour? Whether its Jacob Rinne, the young Scandinavian goalkeeper, or Moses Simon, the exciting Nigerian midfielder, or their two top goalscorers, the Japanese Yuya Kubo and the Ukranian Roman Yaremchuk, its just so refreshing to see athletes from all over the world coming together to fight for the same cause, which in this instance is a fairly mediocre league title. Can they win the ruddy thing? Well they started the playoff campaign with a 2-0 victory at Anderlecht, which is nothing to be sniffed at, but Club Brugge’s lead will be difficult to overhaul. If they stick together, keep scoring goals, and revel in this marvelous city they call home, I give them half a chance by jove.
There are three more sides in the Championship Play-off group, but I don’t fancy their chances of winning the title. On the plus side, there are two European places up for grabs, though as I always say – we know the cost of Europe, but what are the benefits? Oh, yes, revenue. One side that will be hoping to break into the Europa League next season is Standard Liege. Situated in the valley of the Meuse river, Liege is a leafy, gothic city with a great tradition of folk festivals. Of course, none of that particularly interests me, so I’ve spent my time wandering around and getting to know the people of Liege or, as I like to call them, Liegends(!!!). Disappointingly I couldn’t find anywhere that would do me a plate of chips and mayonnaise and so, against my better judgement, I’ve dived headfirst into some local cuisine. I ordered the Carbonade flamande, which when it arrived turned out to be beef stew, but enjoyed it with a lovely glass of dubbel beer. My word, what a treat! I tell you, these Belgians might not know their politics, but they really can rustle up a good plate of grub. Having been revistalised I embarked on my scouting mission of Standard Liege, and found that this lot are no slouches. Ten league titles in their history, often coming two a decade, Liege have struggled a little in the past few seasons, but they’re on their way back up. The squad is more than the sum of its parts, with Mexican stopper Guillermo Ochoa the most recognisable name in there (I’ve never heard of him, but then I don’t even know who Bobby Banks is). Portugese striker Orlando Sa is the team’s goal-getter, and is clearly a favourite of manager Ricardo Sa Pinto, probably because they’re both Iberian. Either way, I back this lot to bag a Euro place.
Next up, Genk. Or Ghenk. One of the two. Quite a sleepy little city this one. Imagine Cornwall without any of the breathtaking coastline or implied incest and you’re getting somewhere close to imagining what Genk is like. Not a lot going on at all. Luckily for them, there’s a decent football team in the city. KRC Genk’s nickname is De Smurfen which, if you’re not fluent in Dutch, means The Smurfs. Now I’m guessing they’re called this because of their blue kits, or it could be because their players are tiny and run around in little gnome hats. Never understood The Smurfs myself, though I don’t mind telling you that I had a few private moments in my teenage bedroom thinking about Smurfette. Ahhh, a wonderful year, 2016. Such a shame that mother had to pass before I could get back into the old house. Nevermind. So, Genk finished fifth in the normal season, which puts them in the running for the final Europa League place, but they’ll face stiff competition from the other European hopefuls. They’re lacking a prolific striker, with Dane Marcus Ingvartsen only managing six goals so far this season, but fortunately his team mates have chipped in, as Siebe Schrijvers, Alex Pozuelo and Ruslan Masinovsky have five each. Manager Philippe Clement has plenty of experience with success, having played twelve times for Coventry City in 1999, but as a manager he’s something of a rookie – whether this works against Genk we shall have to see. It’s going to be close, and there’s a little team south of here that will have a lot to say in the final outcome…
My final destination on this eye-opening trip is the postcard perfect Charleroi. Now, it’s not pronounced ‘Charlie-Roy’ as some idiot former deputy leaders of certain political parties will have you believe, though I did once have an uncle called Charlie Roy. Dead now. I must recommend heading down to the Orleans Street market if you get a chance. I had a delightful waffle down there, washed down splendidly with a nice strawberry beer. I tell you, this lot know how to live! Now onto the football team. Since being promoted from the second division in 2012, Royal Charleroi Sporting Club have stamped their authority on the Belgian League, and this year they’re having their best season for over a decade. A third placed finish in the final table put them in an excellent position heading into the playoffs, though their final five games saw a major drop off in form – five draws and one defeat. Carrying that form into this final stage of the season may well see them fall into sixth and out of European contention, which would be a crying shame for such an exciting team. Kaveh Rezaei, who’s Iranian which is absolutely fine, has been banging the goals in this season since his move from Esteghlal last year. Just under a goal every other game is a marvelous return from a player presumably used to playing on minefields. The midfield playmaker, Cristian Benavente, has also weighed in with his fair share, and I’m sure he’ll be enjoying life more after joining Charleroi from Milton Keynes which, if I may say so myself, is a hole. At the other end, Charleroi ended the season with the second best defence in the league, thanks in no small part to veteran goalie Nicolas Penneteau. The Zebras (named because of their black and white kit rather than their suitability as a hunting trophy) will be pushing all the way for that final European spot, and I wonder whether they might just nick it off Genk. All will be revealed!
So that’s me done for another month. I had my doubts about Belgium, I’ll be honest. But I tell you what, it’s a bloody triumph of a country! I can’t wait to come back, in fact I’ve just arranged to meet an estate agent to discuss buying myself a little retirement home here. Yes, I can just see myself living out my twilight years, drinking beer and eating chips and mayonnaise. What a life.
What’s this? Right to reside? Non-EU citizens? Must have a valid Visa? OH FOR FUC…GET ME THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION IMMEDIATELY”
Vile Barrage there, hoist by his own petard. If only real life were so satisfying. With just one month left of the season Barrage will be back for his final report in May, if he hasn’t stuck his head in a deep fat fryer before then. We can dream.