Brussels derby points to historic Union promotion

This Saturday, venerable Union Saint-Gilloise visit RWDM for the penultimate Brussels derby of the season. At stake is not only local pride but a path back to the top flight for Division 1B leaders Union after 49 years. We speak with European football expert and Union season-ticket holder Rob Francis.

The last time Union Saint-Gilloise appeared in Belgium’s top division, it was May 1973. The last time Union won the title was 1935 – yet they remain the third most successful club in Belgian league history, behind Anderlecht and Club Bruges.

Stade Joseph Marien/Rob Francis

To understand what this tradition means, you need to pay a visit to the Stade Joseph Marien, Union’s home since 1919 and Europe’s most romantic football ground. Surrounded by medieval woodland, this is where players and fans tried to forget the recent horrors of World War I and reclaim Union’s turn-of-the-century glory. In more recent times, these leafy outskirts of south Brussels have attracted the city’s diverse foreign community to settle here.

“Union’s appeal lies partly on where it is,” says long-term supporter Rob Francis, “prime expat country, capturing the Ixelles-St-Gilles-Forest contingent. They also used to play most of their games on Sunday afternoons, which was much more convenient than Saturday nights when Anderlecht and RWDM used to play. If you’re an expat, there is more competition for entertainment on Saturday nights than Sunday afternoons. And then, of course, there’s the atmosphere and the ground itself – laid-back, chilled, open to expats and foreigners, liberal….”

Stade Joseph Marien/Rob Francis

After the Stade Joseph Marien co-hosted the football tournament of the 1920 Olympics – this was where Spain played their first international match, against Denmark – Union won a first post-war title in 1923. But just as the yellow-and-blues had re-established dominance between 1933 and 1935, another Brussels club claimed it back: Daring.

Last crowned champions in 1936 and 1937, Royal Daring Club de Molenbeek later merged with Racing White to become RWDM Molenbeek, representing a grey, former industrial area of west Brussels.

With Union so long out of the limelight, ‘Zwanze’ derby games with RWDM, and with later iteration FC Brussels, have been few and far between.

Stade Joseph Marien/Rob Francis

“I’m good friends with some RWDM fans through my trips with the national team,” explains Rob. “They seem to care about the derby more than Union do, but that’s also because RWDM is less laid-back, less relaxed and slightly more intimidating. My RWDM friends have had various run-ins on their travels and there were RWDM firms back in the ’80s and early ’90s.”

“There’s a different vibe at RWDM than at Union, where the idea of a firm is almost non-existent. RWDM is theclassic Brussels club, and proud of it, so perhaps they feel the derby passion more than Union. The fixture was played a few times as a friendly, but before this season they hadn’t met in a few decades.”

A recent example came in December 2017 when RWDM fans boycotted the cross-city friendly at the Edmond Machtens Stadium– where Saturday’s league game will take place – because Union’s had joined up with FC Liège followers against RWDM the week before. Union won 5-0.

“Now there are no fans, of course, it’s difficult to get that excited. Without fans, there isn’t really any spectacle. You see a few anti-Union stickers and memes going round from RWDM, but it doesn’t seem to be reciprocated. Union fans want to win, but they seem just happy to be there.”

Stade Joseph Marien/Rob Francis

‘There’ is nine points clear at the top of Division B after four straight wins, 40 goals scored and only four defeats all season. After coming close in 2019 and just missing out on a Europa League play-off, Union look set for a (very) long-awaited return to the top.

But, given the quaint ground and games with the likes of Seraing, Deinze and, indeed, RWDM, wouldn’t Union fans prefer to stay at this level? Not really, according to Rob: “I don’t think so. Union fans have waited long enough for success, and they were always too big for the various amateur leagues where they’ve been ensconced for too long.”

“The Belgian FA’s policy on professionalism is controversial, leading to only eight teams in Division 1B, which is not as appealing as a larger league. I’ve lost count of the number of games Union have played against Westerlo! It’s rather dull, but that’s not the fault of the club. With promotion now a real prospect, I don’t think anyone would swap this for the 3rd Amateur League”.

Stade Joseph Marien/Rob Francis

Partly driven by current circumstances, this year’s second tier has no play-offs, play-downs (!?!) or périodes, involving divisional leaders after certain terms in the season – just a straight path to match-ups with Bruges, Standard and… Anderlecht. “I’m amazed by how few expats have been to Anderlecht – it’s not the easiest place to get tickets, but it was practically the first thing I did when I moved here. It takes a lot for expats in Brussels, even football fans, to stir themselves to go to football, they’d rather be in the Irish pub watching the Premier League or the rugby. Those who do tend to go to Union for the reasons I’ve explained.”

“I’ve been going to Union since 2005. I got season tickets last season because they were so cheap, and really enjoyed it. There’s was a group of guys from Finland, Germany and elsewhere in Belgium. It was great fun socially. The funny thing is that they insisted on being in the main stand, to protect them from the rain – until then, I’d only ever stood on the terrace opposite.”

Stade Joseph Marien/Rob Francis

Ground improvements at the Joseph Marien will allow the club to step up to the top level in 2021-22 without having to move home games to the national Stade Roi Baudouin as was the case during the reconstruction between 2016 and 2018.

“I was fearful that a refurbishment would lead to a loss of character, but that isn’t the case. They basically added seats to the two ends. They also improved the scoreboard, but I don’t know if that was a requirement. The ground was made fit for professional football, which covers the top two leagues, 1A and 1B. The Belgian FA tried to market this as one league, with play-offs in recent seasons between clubs in the two divisions. This year is different with no play-offs, but only because of the pandemic. Basically, once a ground is fit for 1B, it is fit for 1A, as far as I understand it.”

These developments encouraged Brighton owner and leading poker player Tony Bloom to step in and take over the historic club in 2018. The current Union side features two English defenders recently based on the south coast. “There’s Christian Burgess, who’s ex-Portsmouth, and Alex Cochrane on loan from Brighton. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Up front, Dante Vanzeir is lightening quick and last Saturday scored the fastest goal in the history of Belgian professional football at six seconds.”

“Teddy Teuma is a Maltese international, Loîc Lapoussin plays for Madagascar, and goalkeeper Anthony Moris has over 30 caps for Luxembourg. Sébastien Pocognoli, former international and West Brom player, is also on the books. What’s really changed in the last decade is the fact that Union players now come from all over. It’s a genuine professional outfit, rather than local carpenters and decorators.”

Union Club House/Rob Francis

There’s one constant, however. The Union Club House, a wood-and-brick palace of football memorabilia, worth the trip alone to the neighbourhood known as Forest, even on non-match days. As well as Union paraphernalia – the team of 1932-33, the plaque to Jef Valise, the ‘eternal Unioniste’ who used to carry his uncle Jacques’ kit bag to home games – there are decorative nods to the great Torino side who perished at Superga, pennants of obscure Greek teams, even West Ham get a look-in. The back door leads out to the main stand, the pitch, and a do-they-really-play-here? backdrop of forest greenery.

A century and a year after playing in the first post-WWI Championnat de Belgique, against the likes of Racing, Daring and long-lamented neighbours Uccle Sport, Union stand ready to do battle with Belgium’s best. First, though, there’s a Brussels derby to deal with.

RWDM-Union Saint-Gilloise, Edmond Machtens Stadium. Saturday, January 30, 8.45pm CET.