KAS Eupen and their aspiring young squad
June 2012 heralded a major shake up for KAS Eupen of the Belgian second division. The changes they have seen recently may not be making headlines worldwide but the potential difference they could make to the game of football immediately, long term and culturally are huge.
To understand fully first we must look at the city of Eupen as a whole. Located in the province of Liegé it sits close to the border of both Germany to the east and the Netherlands to the north. Belgium as a country is well known for its Dutch and French overtures and also the burgeoning immigrant population, mostly from Africa, who have settled in the country. However Eupen is the capital of the German speaking community, a lesser known side to Belgium but important all the same.
Couple the above with the fact that Eupen’s new owners from mid 2012 were the ASPIRE Zone Foundation based in Qatar, who also own PSG in France, and the club becomes a smorgasbord of nationalities and cultures, but to the credit of the club they are currently reaping the benefits. The club’s nickname is the Panda’s, an allusion to their black and white stripes but a deeper meaning could be forged from the way players of so many backgrounds stand shoulder to shoulder for the club every week.
As the club come off the field having beaten bottom of the league Hoogstraten 5-2 thanks to goals from five different players, KAS Eupen have found themselves at the top of the league after ten games. In this league that means they will be present for the end of season play offs as a minimum due to winning the leagues first period of ten games. They could miss out on the confusion at the season’s end completely should they win the league outright, a distinct possibility if they continue to play with the confidence they have.
Promotion would mean a return to the top flight, something they tasted just a few years ago when they were promoted for the 2010/11 season but their stint in the promised land was short lived as they came straight back down. This was before the take over from Qatar and since then the team has taken on a more youthful look. Only six of their first team squad are 25 or over, making their place at the top of the league seem even more remarkable. It will be testing for the club as they try to maintain this form in the business end of the season, a job many of these young players will be unfamiliar with. with the confidence they have.
Unfortunately it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the club this season. They recently suffered a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Anderlecht in the Cofidis Cup, and for a team with promotion on their minds this could be seen as a dramatic problem. For players like Ndumiso Mngadi from South Africa, Raoul Kenne from Cameroon and Samuel Asamoah from Ghana who are all 19 years old and have all featured heavily in the Eupen team this season it may be a rude awakening. Coming up against an Anderlecht team heavy on youth itself in the form of Massimo Bruno and Dennis Praet and not forgetting 16-year-old Youri Tielemans it is a stark reminder that youth is one thing but experience is another and even young players can have a wealth of experience these days.
Promotion would mean playing against the likes of Anderlecht on a more regular basis, as well as other household names from the Belgian league. And even though it is not against the likes of Anderlecht where the club will be looking to pick up their points a 7-0 defeat is never good for confidence, no matter the gulf in class. Their stay in the top flight, should they achieve it, may not be a long stay again.
For the players, while Eupen may be their home and the team that gave them their start in Europe, it will be difficult for the club to resist should bigger clubs come looking. The players are by nature ambitious and hungry for success and will not see their ability capped by the small Belgian club. For Eupen it could be a difficult task to try and keep stabilised as players come and go through a revolving door should they prove successful. A large portion of the credit for keeping the team cohesive should go down to head coach Tintín Márquez and his Spanish back room staff who have helped shape this team and get them to the top of the league early in the season. A good win against fellow league contenders Mouscron-Péruwelz as well as a solid draw away to a dangerous FC Antwerp team managed by Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink are important results early in the season. With eight wins and four draws this season Eupen are yet to taste defeat in the league, and with 32 goals scored it is unsurprising that they boast the league’s top goal scorer in Michael Lallemand who has notched seven already.
The success is testament to Márquez, the Spaniard took control at the club after the take over by ASPIRE, no doubt in part due to Ivan Bravo’s high standing at the company as he put in place a solid Spanish back room staff. When Juan Carlos Garrido and Victor Fernandez became flavours of the month in the top flight there was no mention of their fellow Spaniard who has been doing a solid job in the division below for over a year now. Should the club get promoted it will be as much a victory for Márquez as it was for the young players of the club. With Garrido and Fernandez gone from their positions, it is Márquez who endures.
However it is not just young African and South American players that ASPIRE aim to help give a career in football. Based in Qatar there is added impetus for the local players to succeed given their country will host the World Cup in 2022. There are reports that the ASPIRE Zone Foundation may have influenced the voting process having visited particular countries in the lead up to the voting to try and influence votes but the company vehemently deny this. There are other issues surrounding the World Cup that have been reported in mainstream media but come 2022 the country will be hosting the World Cup, be it in summer or winter, and they have already begun using their links with Eupen to try and give Qatari players an opportunity in the game.
Muhannad Naim, a goalkeeper with Al Sadd, came to Eupen last season and made a few appearances for the club and Abdulaziz Al Ansari, a 21-year-old striker, is currently on the books with the club but yet to appear on the field. When Al Ansari’s home world cup rolls around he will be 30 years old, perhaps not even in the game anymore depending on the trajectory of his career, but for young Qatari players it is these sort of opportunities that they will need to grasp – even now – should they wish to be part of the Qatari national team come 2022, especially with naturalised players from the likes of Brazil and Uruguay threatening their places in the squad.
For KAS Eupen it is a remarkable story. A team of young players hailing predominately from Africa and Belgium, held together by a back room staff of Spaniards and bankrolled by a massive Qatari company they make for an interesting but successful group. And when the season end comes they will know they have a shot at going back to the top flight, if they haven’t already managed to win the league outright.