The White Star story and the rocky road to survival

The tumultuous story of the club formerly known as White Star Woluwe may not be a well known one, but it can resonate with many people as they see another team battle the money game, as well as the one on the pitch. Many clubs worldwide will not have experienced the joyous peaks and despairing lows that White Star Woluwe experienced in just one year during the 2012-13 Belgian Second Division. Much like the Jupiler Pro League, the issue of promotion and relegation is far from straightforward.

At the end of the 2012-13 season it was KV Oostende who won the league and therefore took the place of Beerschot in the Pro League – although the problems that the Antwerpen-based club ultimately rendered the situation moot. For the winners of the three mini leagues the season is divided into, White Star Woluwe, Mouscron-Péruwelz and Westerlo they would go into a four team mini-league along with Cercle Brugge who had conquered Beerschot in the third play off of the first division, with the winner either finding themselves promoted, or in the case of Cercle, retaining their spot in the top tier.

Felice Mazzu's good work at White Star led to him becoming Charleroi boss.

Felice Mazzu’s good work at White Star led to him becoming Charleroi boss.

By the time the end of season play offs had come around the wheels had completely fell off the WS Woluwe machine. The Brussels team had started the season in some fashion and having the best record over the first ten games meant for the rest of the season they were safe in the knowledge that their position in the play offs would be assured. However it looked just as likely that if White Star could continue their good form they would win the league outright and find themselves in the unbelievable scenario of playing the likes of Anderlecht and Standard Liegé next season.

As it transpired, that reality would fade into nothing but a far off dream as the scourge of all football teams finally caught up with them and the money began to dry up. As the money stopped to flow, so too did the good performances and by the end of the season the team that took to the field for the club was indistinguishable from the one that had set them up so well early on. Youth players plying their trade voluntarily took to the field for the local derby against FC Brussels and a 3-0 loss could be seen as a good result given the circumstances. Despite the relatively good performance, the Belgian FA ultimately gave the result as a 5-0 win to FC Brussels, as they did with two other results due to Woluwe’s requirement to field unregistered players. There were shades of Excelsior Mouscron’s final few weeks in existence.

The necessity for the academy players to take on the burden came as senior players opted to leave the club for free having gone unpaid for some time. The goals of Daniel Oliveira were the main sustenance that Woluwe lived off, and when he stopped playing it was unsurprising that Woluwe’s performances also waned.

The club then spent the majority of their downfall with the possibility of the play offs being snatched away from them. The play offs had been their crutch through these troubled times but with administration the only option seemingly left it would spell the end of not only the play offs but possibly their second division status. The once realistic belief that the team would be promoted to Belgium’s highest tier was soon replaced with legitimate fears that they may be relegated a division due to their economical frailties.

Sint-Truiden had stood to benefit the most from White Star’s pending expulsion as the best placed league team not to win a period. They would have replaced the club in the end of season play offs and so understandably they were keen to see Woluwe punished to the fullest extent so they could assume their spot. Unfortunately for STVV, Woluwe managed to strike a deal not long after entering administration with Middle Eastern investors who had originally been in talks with rival club FC Brussels. This meant that a new stream of money was opened and the club successfully appealed to the BAS (Belgian Court of Arbitration for Sport) after the Belgian FA rejected their request for a licence.

The licence meant that White Star Woluwe were able to take up their place in the end of season play offs, which Cercle Brugge won to maintain their top flight status. Despite only managing to avoid defeat in one match, it could be seen as the culmination of a successful season for Woluwe, which had begun with the possibility of promotion and ended with the club breathing easily entirely because they were allowed to continue to exist.

Since the takeover, the team have lost a lot of the players that made them the smoothly running outfit that they were, and their highly rated manager Felice Mazzu left the club for Sporting Charleroi but the team retained their second division placing and the certainty of their future. However, they have made a solid if unspectacular start to the 2013-14 season, and a low-key season may be exactly the tonic the team require after last season’s revelling. The new season and new investors, Gulf Dynamic Challenge, who take control from long term owner Michel Farin also signalled the arrival of a new name for the club. White Star Woluwe became Royal White Star Bruxelles but for fans of the club they will just be happy to see their team continue to play, regardless of what their name may be.

White Star managing director Pierre François spent almost ten years at Standard Liège.

White Star managing director Pierre François spent almost ten years at Standard Liège.

With their survival essentially assured under the new investors, it is seemingly imperative that White Star Brussels remain stable in these initial tough times. Jean-Guy Wallemme was manager heading into the season but just five days before the start he was replaced by Abdoukarim Ba. Despite just two defeats in eleven games, the new manager didn’t last too long however before being “promoted” the role of technical director. Former Côte d’Ivoire international Lionel Bah took over and lost his first game in charge, 1-0 to Yannick Ferrera’s Sint-Truiden.  Bah’s credentials are playing alongside Didier Drogba, Gervinho and the Touré brothers and the club explained that Ba was always a temporary appointment. The belief among the hierarchy is that Bah’s playing career will instantly win the respect of the squad and lead to a more dramatic upturn in the side’s fortunes. He does, however, lack the requisite coaching badges to manage in the top flight should they get there.

Twelve months ago White Star were on course to meet Standard Liège as league rivals, on Wednesday night they will meet as competitors in the Cofidis Cup. For les Rouches it will be just another match they are expected to win after their incredible start to the season, for White Star Brussels it could serve as a reminder of what could have been a short time ago.

For one man in particular, it will be an emotional occasion. Pierre François, who is White Star’s managing director, spent almost a decade at Sclessin behind the scenes and is credited by many as being the man whose administrative skills helped put the club on a sound footing. He was shown the door by new owner Roland Duchâtelet and compared to the nouveau régime, the trained lawyer is still viewed with great affection by the fans as someone who was not just highly competent but who understood the fans and the soul of Standard.

François faced some persistent questioning from La Tribune host Michel Lecomte on Monday night over the club’s youth policy. That’s for the future. Tonight should be viewed as a great opportunity to welcome the top team in Belgium right now and show everyone how far they have come in this short time.

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