BELGIAN BRILLIANCE – The unlikely title charge of Zulte Waregem
While Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League may not be the most high profile domestic tournament in European football, it has provided one of its most unlikely success stories this season.
In a league dominated by just a handful of teams over the last decade, this term has seen unfashionable Zulte-Waregem upset the hegemony to put themselves on the brink of what would be the most spectacular title triumph in the history of Belgian football.
A 5-2 thumping of Club Brugge on Thursday evening sends Zulte-Waregem into play-off decider with Anderlecht on Sunday, knowing victory would secure the club their first title in its history.
The rise of the side from West Flanders is all the more remarkable when one considers the towns of Waregem and Zulte have a combined population of less than 50,000 inhabitants and are very much backwaters when it comes to top flight football. Nevertheless, the Essevee have put both towns on the map this season, even if many outside Belgium would struggle to find them on that map.
Founded in 1950 as Zulte Sportief, the club has undergone a number of name changes during its existence – a merger between Sportief and SK Zulte created Zultse VV in 1976, who then subsequently joined forces with KSV Waregem in 2001 to create SV Zulte Waregem – the club’s current guise.
The club spent much of its early years playing in the amateur leagues of Belgian football, until current coach Francky Dury arrived in 1990. The former police detective guided the club, in its many guises, from the regional divisions right up to the Belgian top flight, before heading for an unhappy season-long spell at KAA Gent. Dury’s time at the Jules Ottenstadion proved fractious and he was eventually sacked by Gent after being accused of negotiating a potential move to Club Brugge.
Dury subsequently had a brief spell at the helm of Belgium’s Under 21 side before returning to coach Zulte-Waregem in December 2011. After a poor start to the season, Dury eventually steered them clear of the drop zone and into the Europa League play-offs where they finished second behind Mons.
The club were widely tipped for relegation this season, but instead they have surpassed all expectations. A 1-0 victory at Standard Liege on the opening day of the season was followed by a 2-0 triumph against Dury’s former side Gent to give a sign of things to come. They have since gone on to beat champions Anderlecht at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadion and also Club Brugge on their travels.
Fired on by the goals of Franck Berrier who is top scorer with 13, Zulte-Waregem have been a sensation. With an annual budget of just €8.5 million, Dury has managed to get the very best out of a side containing a eclectic mix of young prospects, gnarled veterans and loan signings that barely registered with the country’s sporting press when they were made.
The excellent Berrier has taken most of the spotlight, but he has been ably supported by an equally impressive cast. Defensive midfielder Bernard Malanda-Adje has been a rock sat just in front of a back four containing the talented full back Davy De Fauw, while Mbaye Leye has chipped in with his fair share of goals, scoring 17 times in all competitions.
Then there is Thorgan Hazard, younger brother of Eden. Both players joined Chelsea during the summer, before Thorgan was allowed to join Zulte-Waregem on a season-long loan soon after arriving in West London. Although not as technically gifted as his older sibling, Thorgan has creativity in bundles and has been in impressed form this term.
All this has made Zulte-Waregem one of the inform teams in Europe this year – a fact further cemented when they completing an impressive 15-game unbeaten run that stretched between the months of October and March.
The fear for fans now, of course, is that the team will be broken up once the season reaches its climax. In fact a number of players have already been linked with summer moves away from the Regenboogstadion,
Malanda was all set to join English Premier League side Fulham in a €6 million deal during the January window, however the move fell through and he remained in Belgium. Nevertheless, it is more than likely he will be on the move during the summer. Franck Berrier has also said he wants to leave the club, while the likes of Leye and De Fauw have been linked to a number of big name clubs across Europe.
Despite these fears however, fans of Zulte-Waregem are living in the moment, and that moment could see them crowned League Champions for the first time ever on Sunday, causing the biggest upset in Belgian football history in the process. The modern game rarely sees fairy tales, but the story of Zulte-Waregem could not have been better played out had it been scripted.