Next up in our series looking at the clubs who came from nowhere to win European silverware, we turn to Belgium.
BY JACK UNWIN
The European Cup Winners Cup, UEFA’s forgotten bastard child, has lain dormant since 1999. The competition was often a springboard for further success. Sampdoria followed their win in 1990 by claiming the Scudetto a year later and reaching the European Cup final in 1992. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United also won the trophy in 1991, as his side began to gain momentum on their path to all out dominance.
It was a competition that smaller teams succeeded in. Eastern bloc teams, for example, did well. Dinamo Kiev won it twice and FC Magdeburg beat an AC Milan side coached by a young Giovanni Trappatoni in 1974. There were also all bloc finals. Kiev beat Ferencváros in 1975 and Dinamo Tbilisi beat Carl Zeiss Jena in 1981. The focus of this piece is not the Eastern bloc, but a team from a small town in a small country, Belgium.
Belgium, a country created by the British to annoy the French, as Charles de Gaulle once put it. As this article is about Belgium, I feel legally obligated to list several clichés about the country – Waterloo, Poirot, Tin Tin, nice chocolates, the Smurfs and the bloody European Union.
Their teams have had moderate success in Europe. Anderlecht, Belgium’s most successful club, have won the Cup Winners Cup twice and the UEFA Cup. Club Brugge, under legendary coach Ernst Happel, were denied in the UEFA and European Cup finals by Liverpool in the 1970s. But in the late 1980s, a small club called KV Mechelen rose to prominence, and upset the odds both at home and in Europe.
The town of Mechelen lies in the province of Antwerp in northern, Flemish Belgium. KV Mechelen had success in the 1940s with three league titles but had fallen away by the 1980s. In 1983 they were promoted to the first division under the leadership of Belgian businessman and President John Cordier, who would bankroll the Mechelen revolution. In their first season in the top flight, the Malinwa came 6th, but followed this with disappointing 12th and 11th place finishes in 84/85 and 85/86. A new manager was brought in, who would lead Mechelen for the next three incredible years.
Aad de Mos was 38 years old when he took over at Mechelen. Looking like a silent thug in a gangster movie, de Mos had won the Eredivisie twice with Ajax before his dismissal in 1985. He arrived at a Mechelen team which had the foundations of a winning side. Erwin Koeman, brother of Ronald, had joined in 1985, whilst striker Piet den Boer had been at the club for four years.
The players who would take Mechelen to the next level arrived in the summer of 1986. The standout signing was Michel Preud’homme, Belgium’s number two goalkeeper behind Jean-Marie Pfaff, who signed from Standard Liege. Centre back Lei Clijsters, father of tennis player Kim, signed from Thor Waterschei and became club captain, whilst Wim Hoefkens joined from Beerschot.
With a strong mix of Belgian and Dutch players, Mechelen took off. They came second in the league, two points behind Anderlecht, and beat Royal Football Club de Liege 1-0 to win the Belgian Cup. For the first time in their history, KV Mechelen were in Europe.
1987/1988: Victory in Europe
Mechelen were now fighting on two fronts, and they made more important signings. Marc Emmers came in from Waterschei and Eli Ohana, a skilful Israeli striker, joined from Beitar Jerusalem to support Piet den Boer up front.
Mechelen would first play a team from behind the Iron Curtain, Dinamo Bucharest. The Romanian side played what can politely be called a physical game, as they tore into Mechelen with a series of vicious tackles. The first leg was won by a tremendous shot by den Boer who seized on a Rutjes header to smash the ball home. Behind the curtain, Mechelen won 2-0 with a lucky goal from Hoefkens who slipped whilst shooting in the box and fortuitously lobbed the goalkeeper.
The next visitors to the Achter de Kazerne stadium were Scottish Cup winners St. Mirren. The first leg was goalless with both Pascal de Wilde and den Boer hitting the woodwork. At Love Street, Mechelen gave the performance they were looking for. Ohana silkily dribbled through three St Mirren defenders to score the opener and pounced on a shot that hit the post to make it 2-0. The game was marred by an ugly incident between St. Mirren striker Kenny McDowall and Hoefkens. McDowall retaliated to a clumsy Hoefkens tackle by kicking him in the face whilst he was on the floor. Mechelen fans feared hooliganism before the game, but the violence took place on the pitch.
This being the days of shorter European competitions, Mechelen were already in the quarter-finals. They avoided the big teams like Ajax, Marseille and Sporting Lisbon, going behind the Iron Curtain again to play Dinamo Minsk of the Soviet Union. After a narrow victory in Belgium, Mechelen travelled to a freezing Minsk. On the first day there it snowed. Then it thawed, turning the pitch into a bog. Then it snowed again, but de Mos and the Mechelen hierarchy were insistent that the game went ahead, as it would be harder for Minsk to attack.
On a snow covered, picturesque pitch inside the Soviet Union, Mechelen showed the resourcefulness of potential champions to draw the game 1-1 in front of 50,000 fans. Their goal came from a long ball to Ohana who showed great control in the snow to slot it home. Tiny Mechelen had made it to the semi-finals to play Atalanta of Italy.
Atalanta were, like Mechelen, underdogs in the competition. They had been relegated the previous season but qualified for the tournament as Coppa Italia finalists. Mechelen’s stadium was filled with Atalanta’s tifosi, but the Belgian side were not to be denied. They took the lead after seven minutes, as Ohana chested down a free kick into the box and fired it low into the bottom corner to make it 1-0. Atalanta hit back through their most famous player, Swedish international midfielder Glenn Stromberg. In the 82nd minute, a Mechelen free kick was headed off the line then nodded into the path of Piet den Boer who hit a typically powerful shot into the net to make it 2-1. Mechelen had a lead to protect in Bergamo.
At Atalanta, Mechelen went behind for the first time in the competition. A Mechelen handball was duly punished by an Oliviero Garlini penalty. It looked like the Belgian side were going to buckle at the penultimate hurdle. In the second half Stromberg was controversially brought down in the box, as replays proved, but he only got a free kick for his troubles.
Then in the 56th minute, Rutjes produced an astonishing equaliser. A Mechelen free kick was lofted into the box, Ohana and an Atalanta player challenged for the ball on the right hand side of the box, the ball spun in the air whilst Ohana searched in vain for it. Meanwhile Rutjes, who had been facing away from goal, ran, swerved and hit the sweetest of volleys from the edge of the Atalanta box into the bottom left hand corner. According to the Mechelen club doctor Walter Jaspers, Rutjes later tried to recreate his goal twenty times without success.
Mechelen got the winner eleven minutes from time. Ohana regained possession in midfield, dribbled past two players before Marc Emmers received the ball, left Stromberg on his backside and scored. Mechelen came from behind to win in Italy, a superb result, which put them in the European Cup Winners Cup final in Strasbourg.
KV Mechelen would play Ajax on May 11th 1988. This was not a vintage Ajax side, but still had many good players like Danny Blind, veteran Arnold Muhren and youngsters Aron Winter and Dennis Bergkamp. Ajax at that time were in the shadow of Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven, who had won the domestic double and were also in the European Cup final. Ajax were coached by temporary manager Barry Hulshoff, as the legendary Johan Cryuff had departed the club for Barcelona after a moderately successful time in Amsterdam. Ajax were also the reigning champions, having beaten Lokomotiv Leipzig in Athens the year before.
For de Mos, it was a chance to beat the team that dismissed him three years before. For his team, it was a chance to cap their first astonishing season in European football, but Ajax were favourites to win.
After an opening full of niggly fouls, Ajax’s chances were thrown into jeopardy after just sixteen minutes. After lovely interplay between Emmers and den Boer, Emmers raced towards goal, only to be cynically taken out from behind by Danny Blind. The Dutch defender was deservedly given a straight red card for his troubles. Mechelen now took control, after some great dribbling by De Wilde, den Boer turned and shot straight at Ajax keeper Stanley Menzo. De Wilde also had a header well saved by Menzo as the first half ended goalless.
The goal came eight minutes into the second half. Ohana duelled with Frank Verlaat on the left hand side, used his skill to get past him and swung a cross straight onto the head of den Boer to make it 1-0. Ajax threw on the young Bergkamp in an attempt to change their dire fortunes, and it was he who began Ajax’s best move. He passed the ball to Swedish defender Peter Larsson, who played a one two with Muhren, looped the ball into the path of John Bosman, who volleyed the ball first time and drew a tremendous save from Preud’homme. Late on, a Wouters cross was headed wide by Winter, but it was not to be.
KV Mechelen had beaten one of Europe’s aristocrats to claim the European Cup Winners Cup. This was no fluke, Mechelen deserved to win the final and the competition. They did not lose a single game and only conceded three goals in the nine games they played. Mechelen were worthy winners and they did it in their first ever European campaign.
De Mos, in a deadpan style worthy of Chic Murray, declared it was the happiest day of his life, whilst the team celebrated in Mechelen. Meanwhile, things got worse for Ajax. Two weeks after their defeat, PSV beat Benfica to win the European Cup and the treble.
After the victory
Mechelen also came 2nd in the league that year behind Club Brugge, but in the 1988/89 campaign they went one better and won the Belgian league by four points. They almost repeated their success in the Cup Winners Cup as well. It took a Sampdoria side featuring Pagliuca, Vialli and Mancini to beat them 4-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals to deny them. In the summer of 1989 Aad de Mos left for Anderlecht, but the Malinwa continued to do well.
In 1989/1990, Mechelen dropped to third in the league, but they pushed Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side in the European Cup quarter-finals, only losing in extra time in the second leg. The club came second again in 1990/1991, losing out to de Mos’ Anderlecht. From then, the club slowly began to drop down the league. They came fourth in the next two seasons, followed by an eighth place finish in 1993/1994. Their last four European runs in the UEFA Cup ended in the first, first, second and third round respectively. The decline can be traced back to John Cordier, who had done so much to modernise the club since 1983. His company Telindus began to struggle, so he was forced to sell Mechelen’s best players to try and balance the books. He left the club in 1992 just before they began to crumble. Michel Preud’homme, the last link to the great Mechelen side, was sold in 1994.
By the mid-2000s, Mechelen had survived bankruptcy and were in the Belgian third tier. At the moment, they are back in the Belgian top flight, albeit in a lowly position. They are distant days now, but KV Mechelen’s fans will always remember when they were the best team in Belgium, and took on Europe and won.
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