Surprise package Union back to glory days in Belgium

BRUSSELS (AP) — Back in the elite of Belgian soccer after 48 years, Brussels club Union Saint-Gilloise has a shot at matching Leicester’s fairytale success in the Premier League.

Forget Club Brugge, Anderlecht or Standard Liege this season. It’s all about the the small Brussels club with the glorious past.

Following an emphatic 7-1 win at Oostende over the weekend, the club based in the leafy Forest neighborhood of the capital city has a seven-point lead over Antwerp and defending champion Club Brugge, meaning it’s already guaranteed of the honorific title of “autumn champions” awarded to the leading team halfway through the season.

“It’s an honorary title so it’s not a big deal. But for the mental and positive energy, it’s very good,” Union coach Felice Mazzu said after the rout on the North Sea coast.

What the Union supporters really want now is for their team to achieve what Leicester did in 2016: upset all big guns and be crowned champion at the end of the season.

Such a feat would not stand alone in Union’s decorated history, though.

Not very well known outside the country, the club founded in 1897 is part of Belgian soccer’s aristocracy. It got the first of its 11 titles in 1904, and played 60 straight matches undefeated from 1933-35, a record that still stands in the soccer-mad country.

The club also enjoyed a series of successes on the European stage, reaching the semifinals of the now defunct Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1960. Union was, however, relegated to the second division in 1963, the start of a downfall that saw it drop as low as the fourth division in the 1980s.

Back in professional soccer since 2015, Union has been revived by the arrival three years ago of Tony Bloom, the chairman of English club Brighton who became the club’s majority shareholder alongside business partner Alex Muzio.

Operating with the third smallest budget of the Belgian league, the duo’s data-driven recruitment of players and staff, alongside investment in training facilities, has been working.

“If we took over a team in Belgium, it was to win,” Muzio, who is in charge of the day-to-day running of the club, recently told Le Soir newspaper.

Among the reasons that brought the pair to Brussels, Muzio cited the Belgian legislation favorable to foreign investors, the proximity to London and the league’s quality.

“In Portugal, for example, which has a higher UEFA coefficient than Belgium, there are Benfica, Sporting and Porto,” he said. “But the rest is of a very poor level. Belgium has a very strong league.”

Muzio started his career and met Bloom at Starlizard, a sports betting consultancy where his duties included analyzing data on teams and players. In addition to using data, Muzio praised the club’s scouting cell as a reason behind the team’s success, and the players’ right attitude.

“We look at whether (potential players) are good people, who fit the culture of the club,” he said. “We’ve already had a lot of conversations with players and agents who just want to know how much we’re going to pay them. They don’t want to know anything about the Union and its history. Even though the player may be very good, we feel that he will not be a good fit in the long run.”

Deniz Undav, who scored four goals against Oostende, embodies Union’s clever transfer policy. The 25-year-old center forward joined the club last year on a free transfer from a third-division club in Germany, SV Meppen.

His market value has dramatically risen since he flourished in the attacking-minded team set up by Mazzu, scoring 14 goals and delivering nine assists in 15 appearances this season.

“The chemistry between all the players is fantastic,” Undav said. “There is no arrogance or selfishness within the group, especially because the coach does everything to keep us down to earth.”

Signing striker Dante Vanzeir from Genk also proved to be a masterstroke. The 23-year-old Vanzeir is now one of the most sought-after youngsters in Belgium and recently celebrated his first international appearance, becoming the first Union Saint-Gilloise player to play with Belgium’s national team since Jan Verheyen in 1976.

The string of recent victories is bringing sold-out crowds to Union’s century-old home ground with the Art Deco facade, the 8,000-capacity Stade Joseph Marien. For all its splendor, the venue could soon become a relic of the past, with the new owners planning to build a new one.

“There is a real demand from people in Brussels to come and see the Union, and we are likely to attract more and more people,” Muzio said. “I was in the street the night of the victory against Standard, and there were still a thousand people outside at 1 in the morning.”

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