The Jupiler League in Belgium isn’t one of the top leagues in Europe, in fact its rated by UEFA as the 12th best league in Europe, but what does it offer European football, teams, and players?
The league is contested by 16 teams, with the top two qualifying for UEFA Champions League places and two others getting the opportunity to play in the Europa league. Anderlecht are the most prominent team, winning the league 30 times since its establishment, however in more recent years Standard Liege and Racing Genk have come to the fore and contested in the Champions League.
The Geographical Location of Belgium
Belgium is in a prime location; nestled between the great footballing nations of Holland and France, with Germany and England close by. It may seem strange to suggest that the location of a country within Europe could have an effect on the footballing nature of the country, however as football and the ideas within it develop they become more popular and the sphere of influence increases. As Belgium sits between dominant forces in European football and shares languages, culture and history with it’s neighbours it is safe to assume that it shares some parts of footballing identity with its neighbouring countries. The location also helps prospective buyers of players and scouting networks because of it’s strong infrastructure.
The Financial Improvement of Clubs
Until 1984 the financial positions of clubs were poor. The players were frequently involved with tax evasion and the teams were mostly funded by gate receipts, loans and interestingly, bars. The change during this year is attributed to an investigation by Brussels’ District Attorney which uncovered a bribery scandal. The result was that the players involved were suspended for long terms, and the teams and players were heavily fined. Banks therefore became increasingly negative to awarding loans to teams and a business model was set up to help clubs; however this model soon disappeared when the 1995 Bosman ruling came into effect.
In the early 2000’s there were still problems for Belgian clubs and two clubs, including KV Mechelen had debts with the Belgian Football League and therefore did not receive their professional football licence. They were issued with relegation to the third tier and a nine point reduction.
It took a while for Belgian football to recover but as is the case with most countries, football has experienced a growth in interest in recent years. The current average attendance is 11,676 which is, appropriately the 12th highest attendance in Europe This doesn’t indicate a great interest from the inhabitants but the total population of Belgium is only 11 million.
The rise in interest from the public has meant there has become more interest from the media. At the start of the 97-98 season new contracts were made worth €13 million which has also been a driving factor in financial growth. In 2002 new contracts were drawn up with three interested parties, VTM, RTBF and Canal. This meant that the amount of money awarded to clubs for TV rights would increase by €2 million to €15 million which is an increase of times the amount teams were given in the 89-90 season (then €3 million).
The Youth System
Naturally, with the increase in finances the clubs are able to build better squads by acquiring better players, upgrading the facilities and hiring new staff. Currently all of the Belgian National Squad were trained as youth players within Belgium, which rarely occurs in other small countries; the large teams of England, Spain and Italy come knocking and whisk away the young players for their own uses. Germinal Beerschot, Anderlecht and Standard Liege are the predominant producers of national players; of the current 25 member squad, over half (13) of the players began at one of these three teams.
Standard Liege, Belgium’s fourth most successful team in terms of league titles (10), have invested heavily in youth, and in 2007 it built a new academy; the Academie Robert Louis Dreyfus. It cost €18 million and features five full size football pitches, a synthetic pitch, an indoor heated playing surface, a state of the art gym, a dormitory, a 30 room hotel and an 800 seater stadium which is in regular use.
The director of this academy is Michel Bruyninckx. Bruyninckx is a firm believer that the game is played with the brain and not the body. He holds a strong belief that neuroscience is the way forward in football and the training of young athletes. In England, players are judged by the time they reach 18; when their body has almost completed the growth process, Bruyninckx suggests that the brain isn’t fully developed until 25 and so young players still have a long way to go. Bruyninckx’s methods clearly have substance and work to some degree as approximately 25% of all young members of the academy make it into professional football. Notable players that Bruyninckx has coached include Dries Mertens (now of PSV) and Steven Defour (now at Porto) whilst the Liege academy has produced players such as Marouanne Fellaini (Everton), Axel Witsel (Benfica) and Kevin Mirallas (Olympiakos).
Playing in Europe is the dream for many players around the world, but it is very hard to just jump in at the highest level. Players need stepping stone clubs and leagues, and this is what the Belgian league is seen as. Players from Africa arrive in large numbers to play and show what they can do and then get picked up by other teams in bigger leagues. Chieck Tiote (Newcastle), Gervinho (Arsenal), Mido (Zamalek, once of Ajax), Emmanuel Eboue (Galatasaray) and Dieumerci Mbokani (Anderlecht, formerly Wolfsburg) are just some of the bigger names in recent years to have migrated to Belgium for this purpose.
The table below shows the amount of imports and foreign players in the Jupiler league until 2005 and shows a large rise in the percentage of foreign players.
This high migration pattern and overall talent that the Belgian League can produce has prompted larger teams to create links with Belgian clubs; Arsenal had a link with Beveren until 2006, Manchester United with Royal Antwerp and Chelsea currently have a link with KVC Westerloo. These links allow both clubs to loan players from each other, but are also in place because Belgium has more relaxed laws regarding work permits so it is easier for non EU players to gain the right to work within Europe.
Although the Belgian national team might be under performing (currently 44th in the world) the players in the squad are worthy of a higher position. The last impressive ranking that Belgium held was in 2004, when it reached the height of 16th place. Currently it has one of the best defenders in world (Vincent Kompany), one of the most wanted young players in Europe (Eden Hazard), as well new Chelsea signings Romelu Lukaku and Thibault Courtois who have plenty of potential, but in that squad only three players play in Belgium. The rest have all been transferred to other teams across Europe.
Eight players find themselves playing for teams in England, five in Holland, two in each of Portugal, Italy and Germany, three in Belgium and one in each of Russia, France and Greece. Every player in that current national squad was a product of youth teams in Belgium, and were found by scouts after they had signed professional contracts with the clubs.
If you look at the teams the players were with when they were found by scouts from their current teams, then its shows that the entire squad of the Belgian national team were within 155 miles from Brussels (Moussa Dembele at AZ being the furthest away). The picture below shows the extent of area covered by this.
This shows that the players are more likely to be scouted by local teams. Nothing fascinating about that maybe, but the money that AZ paid for the likes of Moussa Dembele and Lille for Kevin Mirallas is incredibly low compared the the transfer fees they received for moving onto bigger clubs (€5 and €4 million when moving from AZ to Fulham and Lille to AS St Ettiene respectively).
The point here is that more teams from the UK should be looking to the Belgian league and markets for buying young players before the teams of the Netherlands and France snap them up. Not only would it be cheaper in terms of transfer fees but the scouting in this region would be easily manageable due to the concentration of clubs and academies.
Belgium’s Jupiler league isn’t of the highest quality, but it does have some stand out teams (currently Anderlecht, Racing Genk and Standard Liege). Due to its small population the attendances seem low but in relation to the total population it is steadily growing. It is in a prime location for potential new players to establish themselves and for other, larger clubs to scout and invest in the market. In the last year the major transfers out of Belgium included De Bruyne (€7 million), Witsel (approx €8 million), Lukaku (rumoured to be around €13 rising to €18 million) and Defour (€6 million) thus improving the general finances of clubs, which will in turn benefit the league financially (however this may lead to the big teams getting bigger etc). The imports and exports and strength of the league whilst holding a low reputation within Europe are some of the major benefits the Jupiler provides European football.
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