Football can be a deplorable beast. An errant refereeing decision, egregious defending or a sickeningly undeserved away-goal winner plundered by opposition who’ve scarcely threatened a shot on target over the entire two legs, can put an instant cock-blocker on a seemingly fertile season.
Any long-sufferer of the heady irrelevance that is our ‘beautiful game’ will have sucked up the heartbreak and nothingness of unjust defeat. To paraphrase the mildly lewd bumper sticker of the 1970’s: It happens (and – in most cases – far too regularly).
And so it was, during the 1970’s – in a small European enclave roughly the size of Cornwall – that a rivalry took seed that would lead two disparate clubs on a mutually shared journey, challenging the very definition of success.
It’s a story birthed in a country that; after almost 200 years of independence, still struggles to find its own cohesive identity, a nation lurching uncooly behind its ‘popular kid’ neighbours. A story of glory, frustration and how; through a tiny crack in time’s window, a small Kingdom threatened to rule the European club football scene, but – above all – it’s also a story about spectacularly beautiful football kits.
The saga charts the six years between 1972 and 1978 from the standpoint of two clubs; Anderlecht – upper class artisans; purveyors of luxury football – and Club Brugge – regional, working-class grafters; honest and direct, and investigates how sometimes the things that we aspire to, as clubs and supporters, still aren’t enough. It’s a story that is ‘Fabrique Belgique’.
On April 8th 1973, Club Brugge – under the tutelage of the canny, bespectacled, Dutchman, Leo Canjels – secured a 1-1 draw at Parc Astrid, Brussels against outgoing champions, RSC Anderlecht, ending a Belgian title drought for the West Flanders club spanning 53 years. With three games still remaining, De Blauw-Zwart broke a twelve-year Francophile duopoly that – since 1960 – had observed Anderlecht and Standard Liege sharing the title between themselves like promiscuous bedfellows.
FC Bruges wore a superb kit that day, befitting of the huge sway in domestic football that the result signposted. The turquoise change-kit with black wing-collar and trim, accompanied by plain black shirt and stockings was brilliant in its simplicity; a kit fit for champions. More significantly, it was the first kit Brugge had ever endorsed that bore the name of a sponsor on its chest – Carad; a Belgian electronics manufacturer – opening the floodgates apropos sponsorship in the domestic game. European fixtures would have to wait almost another decade before shirt sponsorship became the accepted norm.
The delirious celebrations post-final whistle were perceived by onlookers as a victory of class; the provincial sweat and muscle of the Flemish Region, opposed to the white-collared pomposity of Walloon and Brussels-Capital. Club Brugge had emerged from the wilderness and pitched their flag in the veldt of Belgian football. It was a marker that stuck.
Between 1972 and 1978, De Blauw-Zwart won four Belgian titles to Anderlecht’s one; including three back-to-back gongs between 1975/76 and 1977/78. Within this troika of titles was a double win in 1976/77, secured by a 4-3 victory in a breathtaking Belgian Cup Final at the Heysel against Anderlecht. Club Brugge’s domestic dominance, if not absolute, was unquestionably entrenched.
During these key three years of Blauw-Zwart native supremacy, the club also reached the finals of two major European club competitions – the UEFA Cup Final in 1976 and the European Cup Final of 1978 – both of them lost narrowly to the continent’s emerging behemoth, Liverpool.
Austrian legend, Ernst Happel; installed as coach post-Jacques de Wit’s departure in 1974, built a superb side capable of challenging – and beating – the very finest teams Europe had to offer. Between 1976 and 1978, Brugge defeated a cavalcade of footballing heavyweights; Lyon, Ipswich Town, Roma, Milan, Hamburg, Steaua Bucharest, Real Madrid, Panathinaikos, Atletico Madrid, Juventus all visited the Jan Breydel Stadion and all of them left humbled and defeated, and the Belgians had done so wearing some pretty remarkable football attire.
For European games De Blauw-Zwart donned a white kit (with personalised black trim); a homage to Europe’s first super club, Real Madrid – whom they knocked out of the European Cup in September 1976 whilst wearing Los Blancos’ colours – the imitator, inadvertently, becoming the master.
It was a sumptuous ensemble, manufactured by the German sportswear colossuses, Puma, followed by Adidas. There is something beautiful and dangerous about continental opposition kitted in white – the Club Brugge side of the 1970’s were both of these things.
With league domination in the bag and their European reputation hugely enhanced, there should have been an air of self-satisfaction, joy even, suffusing above Jan Breydel Stadion. However, there was a nemesis – an almighty pain in the proverbial – who were subtracting much of the enjoyment from Club Brugge’s newfound and previously unchartered success. The name of that pain was Anderlecht.
As De Blauw-Zwart sealed their second league title in 1972/73, Les Mauves et Blancs trailed an unflattering eleven points adrift in sixth position – although there was the consolation of Belgian Cup win. It failed to save the job of extravagantly named coach, Hypolite van den Bosch. At a club where second was nothing, sixth was unthinkable. He was duly replaced by Urbain Braems.
Braems; a shrewd tactician, seemed to have restored the status quo in 1973/74, Anderlecht romping to a sixteenth title ahead of Royal Antwerp, scoring seventy-two goals in thirty league games along the way. Club Brugge finished fifth.
The 1974/75 season proved something of an anomaly for both Anderlecht and Club Brugge, the title being lifted by first-time winners, the marvellously-christened Racing White Daring Molenbeek. RWD were from the Molenbeek-Saint-Jean municipality in Brussels, so it could be argued that the title hadn’t left the capital, although that was scant consolation for their city neighbours or their Flemish cousins who finished a distant third and fourth, respectively. The Molenbeek club also wore a superb kit that season – white shirt with horizontal black/red shoulder detail and black trim, black shorts, white socks – but that’s a different story for a different article. Anderlecht, again, won the Belgian Cup beating Royal Antwerp 1-0 at the Heysel, but it failed to save Urbain Braems’ job. He was replaced by the Dutchman, Hans Croon, at season’s end.
It’s at this point is where the Club Brugge/Anderlecht stories blur, taking on a duplicitous, kaleidoscopic quality – success minus satisfaction.
Club Brugge; wearing an iconic Adidas Trefoil kit – azure blue shirt sponsored by 49R Jeans, black shorts with three white vertical stripes and azure stockings with three white horizontal stripes – for domestic fixtures and their trademark all white in Europe certainly looked the business. However, their triumvirate of domestic title wins – Anderlecht finishing runners-up on each occasion – was counterpoised by a reputation as talented nearly-men in European competition.
For Anderlecht, the exact polar-opposite applied. A lack of Belgian league title success – it was their worst decade, domestically, since the 1930’s – was compensated by a glut of European trophy wins; two European Cup Winners Cup and two European Super Cup victories in 1976 and 1978 – the very seasons their Flemish rivals had fallen at the final hurdle – punctuated by a 1977 European Cup Winners Final defeat.
Les Mauves et Blancs; under Hans Croon and latterly Raymond Goethals, sported a kit that was made for conquering Europe – Adidas Trefoil-branded shiny white acrylic shirts, shorts and stockings with mauve striping sponsored by Belle Vue – arguably gazumped Club Brugge’s in the iconography stakes.
It must’ve been hard to take for De Blauw-Zwart who had done Europe the hard way beating sides of genuine calibre. Anderlecht’s list of opponents on route to their 1976 triumph included Rapid Bucharest, Borac Banja Luka, Wrexham, Sachsenring Zwickau and West Ham United. With all due respect to the aforementioned clubs, they were no Real Madrid or Juventus.
In an era of unparalleled success for a Club Brugge side emergent from a five decade period of domestic drought there remained a lingering hue of incompleteness; an Anderlecht-shaped hole that can only, will only, be caulked by winning the European trophy win that eluded them during their golden age.
Yes, football is a deplorable beast; a shared insanity that can leave its devotees feeling both seduced and abandoned. Club Brugge and Anderlecht remain icons of the European game, but – akin to staring down the horizon at a railway track on a hot day – their glories seem strangely remote; a faraway shimmer observable only from distance.
Yet in a tiny vacuum of football’s rich history they were giants; purveyors of wonderful football played in glorious, seminal football kits; inimitable, sealed in time, made in Belgium.