When They Mattered: Anderlecht’s time as a European power

So you’ve heard of Anderlecht, have you? Maybe you know the Belgian club from their bit roles in Champions League play, or perhaps you know them as the former home of Sacha Kljestan, or from the time they purchased Andy Najar. But before it was all those things, Anderlecht was so much more. From 1970 through 1990, it reached seven European finals, thanks largely to one man.

Constant Vanden Stock, heir to the Belle-Vue brewery (which still produces kriek beer sold the world over), began working with the family business when he was just 14. But even before that, when he was just 10 years old, he joined the club whose fate he would forever alter. In the early 1920s, Anderlecht was a middling club, but it was close to his home in the eponymous neighborhood in Brussels.

In 1944, his father was deported by the Nazi occupiers – for unknown reasons – and never returned home. So Constant, at 30, ended his injury-ravaged soccer career and took over. On his watch, the brewery became a multinational company. But, despite having made just 52 appearances at Anderlecht, it was in soccer that Vanden Stock would truly leave his mark.

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Vanden Stock first returned as coach of Anderlecht’s youth academy, where he discovered a boy, Paul van Himst, loitering around the training ground. Van Himst was only eight years old and, back in 1951, you couldn’t join a club until you were 10. So Vanden Stock had him sign a club registration and hid it for the next two years. (Van Himst, by the way, would go on to become one of Belgium’s greatest-ever players, scoring 30 times for his country, 235 times for Anderlecht and earning the nickname “The White Pelé.”)

It would not be the last time he bent the rules.

In 1969, after he’d spent a dozen years as the “Lord of Selection” for the Belgium national team, as well as put in a few years on the boards at other Belgian clubs, Anderlecht decided to bring back Vanden Stock. Truthfully, the club was a bit hard up for cash, and hoped the beer magnate could turn things around.

This was a time when it was still possible to turn domestically dominant clubs into continental powers on savvy and chutzpah alone. Vanden Stock immediately set out to professionalize and commercialize the club that had never had a sponsor. And he instilled continuity – stunningly, Anderlecht’s jerseys have been made by adidas since 1975 and their jersey sponsor has been the same Belgian bank since 1981, throughout its various take-overs and mergers. He sourced talent from the academy he had once run, poached the best players from his rivals – sometimes by showing up at their houses and making offers and worrying about a transfer fee later, like when he signed Robbie Rensenbrink – and installed a disciplinarian manager.

A year after reaching its first European summit, knocking out Inter and Newcastle United but losing the Fairs Cup final, Anderlecht promptly won the double, for only the second time in its existence. But the decade-long run that followed made the club truly remarkable.

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Starting in 1976, Anderlecht would reach the final of the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup three years consecutively, winning it in the first and last seasons of that remarkable run. In those years, the team also lifted the European Super Cup by defeating Bayern Munich and Liverpool, respectively. In 1983 (with Van Himst as manager) and 1984, the paarswit reached the final of the UEFA Cup – as the Fairs Cup had been renamed by then – winning in the former campaign by beating Benfica but losing the latter to Tottenham Hotspur on penalties. In 1986, it would reach the Champions League semifinals for the second time and then the quarterfinals the two following years.

Now, consider that Anderlecht proper is a fairly downtrodden neighborhood on the periphery of a city that then counted less than a million citizens, in a country of less than 10 million at the time. The team played in a small stadium that didn’t become the first in Belgium with luxury boxes until the late 1980s – at Vanden Stock’s insistence, of course. Anderlecht’s success is magnified when you realize it was a relatively modest club without the international brand and cachet of many of its continental rivals.

But Vanden Stock hadn’t come by his success cleanly. Belgian soccer in the 1980s proved deeply corrupt. And any chairman wanting to compete – in an era where chairmen still ran clubs practically by themselves – had to play by the crooked rules that governed it.

A 1984 match-fixing scandal also revealed that vast sums of money moved around under the table in the Belgian league. Anderlecht, like many other clubs, had been paying players without declaring taxes on some of their income. A crackdown made life difficult financially on the club and its rivals.

The worst was yet to come, however. When Constant handed off his chairmanship to his son Roger in 1996, the younger Vanden Stock discovered that his father had been blackmailed for more than a decade. He refused to play ball, however, and so it was leaked to the press that Constant had bribed a referee with a “loan” of about $30,000. That ref, appointed to Anderlecht’s second leg of the 1984 UEFA Cup semifinals against Nottingham Forest, made sure the Belgians’ 2-0 deficit from the first leg was overcome with a 3-0 win in which a Forest goal was dubiously disallowed and an even more dubious penalty was awarded – favoring Anderlecht, of course.

The club was sued by various parties and UEFA attempted to ban Anderlecht from European competition for a season. Its sponsor threatened to jump ship – 15 Nottingham players didn’t drop their $14 million lawsuit until 2007. But by then, Belgian soccer was in deep trouble anyway, dooming Anderlecht to continental irrelevance. After the Bosman Ruling, instigated by a Belgian league player, no less, clubs like Anderlecht could no longer compete in the market.

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In recent years, the club has shown an occasional spasm of its former greatness in European competition, reaching the second group stage of the 2000-01 Champions League, or the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup in 2002-03 and 2007-08. But Anderlecht hasn’t made it back to a European final in 25 years. Like many of Europe’s once-great clubs from smaller countries, it has to make do with domestic glory – Anderlecht has won four of the last five Belgian league titles – and producing talent for the clubs that still matter. Anderlecht’s academy churns out elite prospects now, delivering Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, with others on the horizon.

And Anderlecht still plays in the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium.

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