BeNeLook: An early start / Wilmots hits out at Belgian FA
Most of us loathe the idea of the alarm clock going off at six in the morning and dragging our tired, weary bodies out of bed to get ready for another long and arduous day at work. In Belgian football, this would be a luxury. For the past seven seasons (since the play-offs were instituted), the league campaign has begun towards the end of July. This is to ensure that the regular season is finished by March and that the play-offs can be done and dusted by May. Although this year’s opening round brought us 28 goals in eight games, some sparkling strikes and surprise results, it was still impossible to resist posing the question of whether such an early start is a help or hindrance.
As alluded to above, the domestic fixture list is as congested as the morning rush-hour traffic. Several of the top teams have moved to play down expectations. Standard have a new coach in Slavoljub Muslin who is still getting to grips with his squad and imposing a disciplinarian regime. Anderlecht are flush with funds thanks to the sale of Aleksandar Mitrovic and the impending departure of Chancel Mbemba. Stefano Okaka is about to join to form a strike duo with Imoh Ezekiel but it remains to be seen if Kara is the top-class centreback they crave. Not if Genk have anything to do with it. The player himself has ambitions across the Channel.
Club Brugge are the most affected of the potential title challengers. Exhausted after fighting on three fronts last term, their preparations have been accordingly tailored and so they will peak later. Time is of the essence, however, as tonight they begin their Champions League qualification campaign away to Panathinaikos. Michel Preud’homme is without his desperately needed new goalkeeper in Sinan Bolat, Lior Refaelov and a host of others and thus must make do with a depleted squad. Although Club lost their opening league game in Sint-Truiden, at least they have some competitive action under their belts – they are further on in that sense than their Greek hosts, who will pack the stadium out this evening. Damage limitation is the key in the oppressive heat and the experience of captain Timmy Simons must come to the fore.
Charleroi have already played one qualifying round in Europe, swotting Beitar aside but they will likely pay for their summer excursions at some point during the season. Nevertheless, all the European qualifiers from the Pro League would be in pre-season in order to be up and running for their continental commitments and in this sense, the domestic calendar cannot be blamed entirely. What’s more, if the big teams are caught on the hop it can lead to a degree of unpredictability at the start of the season. When Zulte Waregem finished second to Anderlecht, their opening win at Sclessin proved a springboard for an unforgettable season. Sint-Truiden may not scale those heights but they are a club, and have a coach, moving in the right direction.
Starting more than a month before the end of the transfer window is not ideal from a sporting point of view. North of the border, Louis van Gaal used to call for the wheeling and dealing to stop before the opening round of league fixtures. This is pie-in-the-sky stuff but it is indicative that the world of BeNeFoot is particularly vulnerable to the vultures from abroad circling for their last big meal before winter. Of course, you could shrug this off with the assertion that the Belgian season only really begins in March!
When Marc Wilmots sat down last month for an ‘extra’ Extra Time special, he did so on the condition that he would not be asked about his future, namely his flirtation with former club FC Schalke 04. Now, he has decided to speak out to Le Soir and Het Nieuwsblad. As a former senator in Belgium, he is well aware of the pitfalls of dabbling in politics and thus distanced himself from the recent presidential elections at the Belgian FA. He wasn’t about to duck the Schalke question though:
“Schalke and I, it’s special…They contacted me and I never attempted to make a secret of it. I said everything in public. It’s difficult to be clearer. As for the rest, it was my agent and my wife who visited them. When they came back, my wife said I would no longer recognise my club… I said stop. Immediately. Without receiving a financial offer.
“My choice was made before the game in Paris. I had a front row seat for all the speculation. You wouldn’t believe how I laughed my head off watching the press pack my bags for me.
Nor did he mince his words when it came to what he sees as a shambles at board level:
“If we want to help this generation of players reach their goals, now and in the future, we must be reunited again starting with the FA where everyone is protecting their own position and their own interests.
I know perfectly well who leaked internal documents to a Flemish journalist – just to get at me.”
Wilmots reiterated his intention to stay until Euro 2016 and perhaps beyond (as he had before when swept up on a tidal wave of emotion in Brazil last summer) but the cynics might say his latest posturing is a way of giving himself a more palatable way out than his immediate predecessor.
Update: It has just been announced that the Belgian FA have let Frank De Bleeckere go in an effort to cut costs. One of the best officials of his generation, he had been tasked with improving the standard of refereeing in Belgium. Not only does it add weight to Wilmots’ remarks but there is most certainly a sense of a saga that has a long way to run yet.