Links between Belgian and Irish football go back centuries

Elite international side likely to include several underrated Premier League players

On the October 26th 1863 when Irish student Cyril Bernard Morragh turned up at the Josephites College of Melle with a leather football tucked under his arm he could hardly have imagined that he would be credited with introducing soccer to Belgium.

The country took to the game with such relish that 158 years later Belgium return to Lansdowne Road officially recognised as the as the world's best team for over three years. Despite this even the most fervent supporters of the Red Devils do not expect them to end 2022 by winning the World Cup for the simple reason that Belgium never actually win anything, remaining the only country to have topped the Fifa rankings without having won a major trophy.

Some of this can be put down to simple bad luck with Belgium failing to progress to the 1974 World Cup finals despite not losing a game or even conceding a goal during qualifying. And even the gold medal that they won when hosting the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp was shrouded in controversy when Belgium's opponents Czechoslovakia stormed off in protest at the referee's performance and were promptly disqualified.

Belgium are perfect opponents for the FAI's Centenary Match with a shared history that goes back to the very start. Lack of finance prevented Belgium from becoming the first country to play Ireland but in 1928 they became our second opponents (after Italy). For a time Belgium then became the only country that Ireland played. In the three years between 1928 and 1930 the Irish Free State only played one game a year, beating Belgium in all three matches. When World Cup soccer arrived in Dublin in February 1934 Belgium were the inevitable opponents for Ireland's first competitive fixture.

A remarkable game at Dalymount Park finished 4-4 with Aberdeen's Paddy Moore scoring all the Irish goals becoming the first player ever to score four times in a World Cup match.

Domestically, Belgium is enjoying a Leicester City season with the surprise leaders of the Pro League being Royale Union Saint-Gilloise who were only promoted back into the top flight last year. Belgium operate a split league with the top four teams after a 34-match regular season advancing to the play-offs.

Appropriately for a country that is the bureaucratic capital of Europe, the rule book reads like an EU directive with teams starting the play-offs with “half of the points they won in the regular season, rounded up to the nearest integer”.

Royal Union have an Irish sporting director, Chris O'Loughlin, who was born in Limerick and they were one of three Belgian clubs that competed in the 1929 Aciéries d'Angleur Tournoi an international tournament hosted in Liege. The competition was won by Bohemians following victories over Royal Tilleur and Standard Liège and is thought to be the first European trophy ever won by a League of Ireland club.

Josh Cullen of Anderlecht is the only Irish player based in Belgium. But there was a time when Alex Ferguson would send every emerging Irish talent at Manchester United out on loan at Royal Antwerp, including John O'Shea, Darron Gibson, Jonny Evans and Chris Cathcart.

Dominic Foley spent seven years in Belgium and captained Gent in the 2008 Belgian Cup final in which he also opened the scoring in a 3-2 defeat to Anderlecht. For obvious reasons few players make the reverse journey, with one notable exception being Tunde Owolabi from Antwerp who plays for St Patrick's Athletic.

Since 2016 Belgium have been managed by Roberto Martinez, widely considered to be one of the most thoughtful people in the game. Martinez personally replies to every piece of fan mail he receives of which there has been no shortage since he led Belgium to a best ever third place finish at the 2018 World Cup.

The days when the "name five famous Belgians" challenge would see people relying on fictional characters such as Tintin and Hercule Poirot to complete their quintet are long gone. Unfortunately none of the golden generation of footballers who rendered this particular parlour game redundant will feature in Dublin with Martinez naming a development squad with one eye firmly focused on the 2026 World Cup.

Such extraordinary forward planning is not unusual in Belgian football. In 2013 when Gent were building a new stadium they were careful to install exactly 19,999 seats to avoid the higher taxation levied on stadiums with one additional seat.

As Belgium are travelling with a shadow squad their support staff will be more recognisable to most Irish fans than their players. Anthony Barry makes an immediate return to Lansdowne Road just weeks after he left Stephen Kenny's backroom team to take up a similar role with Belgium. Sitting alongside Barry in the away dugout will be his fellow coaches including former Arsenal greats Thomas Vermaelen and Thierry Henry whose infamous handball remains one of the most controversial moments in the history of Irish soccer.

Belgium's team is likely to include a number of hugely underrated Premier League players including Leandro Trossard (Brighton), Leander Dendoncker (Wolves) and Youri Tielemans and Timothy Castagne (both Leicester City). However the outstanding emerging talent remains teenager Jérémy Doku (Rennes) who on his last visit to Dublin in May 2019 put in an exceptional performance at Tallaght Stadium to eliminate Ireland from the European Under-17 Championships that they were hosting.

But perhaps it is oddly appropriate that Belgium have left all of their most celebrated faces at home. After all Belgium’s most famous player never won an international cap and is world famous for a single victory that he secured while wearing a suit and tie.

In 1990 Jean-Marc Bosman wished to move to Dunkirk but his club RFC Liège demanded a fee of £500,000 even though his contract had expired. Bosman went to the European Court of Justice who in a landmark ruling decided that out-of-contract players in the European Union had the right to move clubs without a transfer fee. Sadly the only footballer who didn't benefit from the Bosman ruling was Bosman himself as his five-year fight against football's powerful governing bodies left him penniless, depressed and an alcoholic. Most of the damages awarded to Bosman went to pay his lawyers with the rest being invested disastrously in a T-shirt business.

Bosman hoped that footballers suitably grateful for the incredible wealth that he had generated for them would buy his Who’s the Boz T-shirts but only one was ever sold – purchased by the son of one of his lawyers. A philosophical Bosman later said: “I must be Belgium’s most famous football player but nobody knows who I am.”

James McDermott is a UCD law lecturer and a fervent soccer supporter.

Read More

Recommended