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Belgian teams never made much of an impact in Europe in the early years of UEFA’s club competitions, the country was largely seen as an also-ran when it came to football. Teams like Anderlecht and Antwerp sustained very heavy blows in the first European Cup tournaments, often suffering double figure aggregate defeats. But the dynamic across the continent began to change in the 1960s and by the early 1970s, Belgium had become a credible force in the game.
Standard Liège reached the semi-final of the European Cup in 1961-62, losing to Real Madrid and a year later, Anderlecht surprisingly beat the Spanish giants 4-3 on aggregate in the first round. It was not unusual for a Belgian side to have a decent run in Europe and to match that, the national team also won through to the 1970 World Cup, finishing ahead of Yugoslavia and Spain in their group. In 1970, Anderlecht from Brussels reached the final of the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup and were only narrowly beaten 4-3 by Arsenal.
Across the border, there was a new footballing movement that was gathering pace in the Netherlands which later became known as “total football”. It was only natural that this would have some influence on surrounding countries like Belgium. Teams like Anderlecht and Bruges were now renowned as difficult opponents in European competition and the national team followed-up their 1970 World Cup campaign by qualifying for the semi-finals of the 1972 European Championship, the latter stages of which they hosted.
Anderlecht, at this time, became the best-supported club in Belgium, with crowds averaging over 20,000 at their Astrid Park stadium. The “purple and white” won the Belgian league in 1972 and 1974 with a team that included experienced international Paul Van Himst, Dutch winger Robbie Rensenbrink and the Hungarian Attila Ladinsky.
For Anderlecht, the period between 1974 and 1981 saw the club make its mark in Europe, playing some exciting attacking football and winning two European prizes.
In the mid-1970s, Anderlecht and Bruges, led by Austrian Ernst Happel, would fight-out the Belgian title race, but in 1976, 1977 and 1978, the team from West Flanders remained ahead, although in the last of those seasons, there was just a single point between them.
Anderlecht won the Beker van België in 1975 (beating Antwerp) and 1976 (4-0 against Lierse). In 1975-76, under new manager Hans Croon, they entered the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Croon was something of an eccentric manager and a character, but he was seen as a stop-gap until national team manager Raymond Goethals was available to join the club.
Anderlecht had the good fortune of a relatively easy run through the competition, beating Rapid Bucharest, Yugoslavia’s Borac Banja Luka, Wrexham and East Germans BSG Sachsenring Zwickau. Anderlecht’s opponents in the final were West Ham, who had a tougher route. Croon’s side almost had home advantage, too, with the game being played at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.
Anderlecht had two members of the Dutch World Cup team of 1974 in their ranks – Rensenbrink and the recently signed Arie Haan, who joined from Ajax. And there was also François Van Der Elst, a promising young winger who had alarming pace and a clear eye for goal. On the bench was another starlet in Franky Vercauteren, a player who had come through the Anderlecht youth system.
Although West Ham, a team that had faded dramatically after a strong start to 1975-76, took the lead, Anderlecht’s speed and directness earned them a 4-2 victory, with Rensenbrink and Van Der Elst scoring two apiece.
In the summer, Goethals arrived at the club after leading the national team between 1968 and 1976. OIne of Europe’s most coveted and charismatic coaches, he was known as “Raymond-la- science” for his incredible knowledge of the game, his range of nicknames also included “Le sorcier” and “Le Magicien”. Always seen with a cigarette screwed into his mouth, Goethals was an advocate of zonal-marking and the 3-5-2 formation long before it became fashionable. At Anderlecht, he was fortunate to have some sublimely gifted players that could produce football with a swagger – casting them in the role of distant cousins of the Dutch sides of the period.
Goethals considered that the jewel in Anderlecht’s crown, Rensenbrink was often under-rated and from a technical perspective, every bit as good as the more high profile Johan Cruyff. Rensenbrink was an introvert, the complete opposite to his celebrated compatriot.
The only major signing for 1976-77, Goethals aside, was English forward Duncan McKenzie, a wonderfully skilful but infuriatingly inconsistent player. He played just nine games and scored two goals before being sold back to England and Everton.
Anderlecht went close to winning the title and finished second in both the league and cup, beaten 4-3 by Bruges in the final, despite leading 3-1. To underline that 1976-77 was a campaign of near misses, they also reached the Cup-Winners’ Cup final again, losing 2-0 to Hamburg in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium.
As Bruges had won the Belgian double, Anderlecht competed once more in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1977-78. Belgium had an outstanding year in Europe that season, for Bruges reached the European Cup final and Anderlecht returned to the final of the competition they had won two years’ earlier. This time, they had a harder road to the final in Paris – beating Lokomotiv Sofia, Hamburg, Porto and Twente before facing Austria Vienna. It was easy going for Anderlecht in the Parc des Princes, a 4-0 win with Rensenbrink and full back Gilbert Van Binst both scoring twice. Anderlecht’s consistency and performances in Europe meant they were ranked in the top six in UEFA’s team rankings in 1977-78 – even ahead of teams like Barcelona and Juventus.
Anderlecht continued to go close in the Belgian League but Goethals never won a domestic title with the club. He moved to Bordeaux in 1979 but returned to Belgium with Standard Liège where he won two championships. Linked to a bribery scandal when he was at Liège and forced to resign, he Later won the UEFA Champions League with Marseille. When he died at the age of 83, former Anderlecht player Hugo Broos paid this tribute to him: “I was lucky to play under him for three years – I look back on that period with a lot of happiness. Raymond was one of football’s eternal greats.”
Anderlecht were eventually champions in 1981 and two years’ later, they won the UEFA Cup. But their three consecutive European Cup-Winners’ Cup finals were a considerable achievement and put the club, and Belgian, football firmly on the map.