Love Letters to the European Union: Ça Plane Pour Moi

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. Our second trip into Europe takes us to the home of waffles, beer, and progressive attitudes to employee rights. It’s Belgium. 

The Player: Jean-Marc Bosman

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Though not blessed with the skill of Eden Hazard or the panache of Enzo Scifo, there are few players in the world that have had such an impact on the modern game as Jean-Marc Bosman. The Liege-born midfielder enjoyed a short career at the top of the game, first making his name as a handy squad player at hometown club Standard, before joining lower league RFC Liege. It was here that Bosman would change the shape of football forever. Having run down his two year contract, Bosman entered into talks with French side Dunkerque over a potential transfer, however RFC were unwilling to let the midfielder leave without a fee. With Dunkerque refusing to cough up for a player no longer under contract, Bosman was forced to remain in Belgium and, to further salt the wound, was dropped from the first team and had his salary reduced. Bosman, however, wasn’t about to take this lying down, and took RFC to the European Court of Justice for restraint of trade.

The case dragged out over the next five years, during which time Bosman was allowed to turn out for semi-professional sides in Belgium and the Reunion Islands, notching up fourteen appearances for Olympique Saint-Quentinois, CS Saint-Denis, and Olympic Charleroi. On 15th December 1995, the European Court of Justice found that the transfer system as it currently was placed an unruly restriction on the freedom of movement for footballers, and decreed that going forwards, players would be given the right to transfer between clubs in the European Union for free once their contract had expired. This ruling also had a knock-on effect for UEFA competition, as the ‘three foreigner’ rule that had been imposed previously was now found to be discriminatory towards EU nationals. From the moment the Bosman Ruling was imposed, clubs in European competition were permitted to name as many EU nationals in their matchday squads as they liked.

With these two new rulings in place, the game was impacted almost immediately. The Premier League in particular would see a massive influx of European talent over the next few seasons, reaching its inevitable climax on Boxing Day in 1999 when Chelsea became the first Premier League team to name an all-foreign XI. The freedom of movement for players whose contracts had expired would also heavily impact on certain clubs, none more so than Ajax who, despite having just won the Champions League, saw an exodus of their best homegrown talent for very little return in 1996, with the wages on offer in Spain, Italy and England too tempting for the likes of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert.

For Bosman, however, the story lacked a happy ending. Freed from his contract with RFC, the Belgian’s name was mud in the football world and, having ploughed the meagre payout he received from the court case into ill-advised investments (including a ‘Who’s The Boz?’ t-shirt line that sold just one unit), Bosman spiralled into alcoholism and depression, eventually receiving a suspended prison sentence for domestic violence. As of 2015, he was unemployed. An ironic state of affairs for the man who invented player  power.

The Game: Soviet Union 3-4 Belgium, 1986

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Their third placed finish at Russia 2018 marked Belgium’s best ever performance at a World Cup, but thirty-two years previous their scintillating attacking play and complete disregard for defending saw them finish fourth in Mexico. On their way to that iconic defeat to Diego Maradona and Argentina in the semi-finals, they met the Soviet Union and took part in one of the all-time World Cup classics.

Despite taking part in the very first edition of the tournament in 1930, Belgium’s World Cup pedigree wasn’t up to much. A shock victory over Argentina in the opening game of 1982 had paved the way to a second round exit, and apart from reaching the final of Euro ’80 they’d tasted little glory in international competition. Heading into Mexico ’86, however, manager Guy Thys had assembled a squad of exciting talent and trusted experience, with old heads Jean-Marie Pfaff and Eric Gerets (fresh from a rescinded five year ban for match-fixing) shoring up the defence, the emerging Enzo Scifo tasked with creating chances alongside Jan Ceulemans, and Erwin Vandenbergh arriving off another prolific season with Anderlecht spearheading the attack. A play-off win against fancied neighbours Netherlands had sealed Belgium’s place at the tournament, and despite losing their opening game against the hosts, three points from meetings with Iraq and Paraguay were enough to see Thys’ team into the second round. There, they would meet the rebooted Soviet Union.

Off the back of taking his revolutionary Dynamo Kiev team to Cup Winners Cup glory against Atletico Madrid, Valeriy Lobanovskyi had been tasked with restoring some pride in a Soviet Union side that had failed to qualify for Euro ’84, and were yet to live up to the standards set by their forbears in the 1960s. Having scraped qualification to the tournament ahead of Switzerland, expectations were low for Lobanovskyi and co, but a 6-0 thrashing of Hungary in the opening game breathed life into their campaign. Dynamo Kiev playmaker Igor Belanov emerged as the new poster boy for the Soviets, and a win against Canada sealed their place at the top of Group C to set up a mouth-watering tie against Belgium in Leon.

In the late afternoon heat of central Mexico the two sides played out 120 minutes of ding-dong football. In the 27th minute, Belanov opened the scoring with a rocket from the edge of the D that flew into the top corner to give the Soviet Union a goal advantage at the break. Lobanovskyi’s side, though, would be pegged back ten minutes into the second half as Scifo, looking marginally offside, latched onto a cross to prod past Rinat Dasaev and bring the Belgians level. Some casual play in their own half then saw the Red Devils gift Belanov a second, as the attacker sliced an effort into the bottom corner. The linesman would come to Belgiums aid once again, however, as thirteen minutes from time a long punt forward was chested down by Ceulemans, fully five yards offside, and the captain swivelled to plant home the equaliser. Another punishing half an hour beckoned. Thys had clearly prepared his players for the heat as, in extra time, Belgium finally took control of the game, first a well worked corner gave Stephane Demol the chance to bounce a header past Dasaev, and eight minutes later Nico Claesen volleyed an effort in to give Belgium a cushion. They weren’t allowed to relax for long as, sixty seconds later, Belanov won and converted a penalty, but the Belgians held on to seal their place in the quarter final, and provide the unfortunate Belanov the status of becoming the third man to score a hat-trick and finish on the losing side at a World Cup.

Spain were dispatched on penalties in the next round before another Maradona wondergoal put an end to the plucky Belgians’ World Cup hopes. A 4-2 defeat to an excellent France side in the third-place playoff was no cause for shame, as the national team gave a country with a population of under ten million a chance to dream for the summer. This might not have been a golden generation, but they certainly provided 24 carat entertainment.

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