Belgium’s managerial merry-go-round keeps on spinning

By | May 19, 2012

Round about the time I entered hospital for a knee operation, the holders of the four highest-profile coaching jobs in Belgium decided to say ‘enough is enough’. No connection between those events of course, but as I’m starting to hobble around – with a parrot on my shoulder – it’s time to reflect on those events and on what the future holds.

Image of Romelu Lukaku

Romelu Lukaku. Image courtesy of EA SPORTS

Georges Leekens’ decision to quit the national team and join Club Brugge made the front pages across the country. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; ‘Mister Georges’ has coached 20 clubs in his career and only once managed to reach the end of a contract. He has “previous” on this kind of thing; in 1997 he walked out on Mouscron – then at the top of the league – to take over the national team for the first time.

Leekens has never had the backing of the media or fans and his decision was met with universal derision. Ex-national coach Robert Waseige said it was a total fiasco while pundit Steph Pauwels, a friend of Leekens, said the problem was that Georges liked money ‘too much’. Leekens will earn over a €1 million per year at Club Brugge, while the Belgian FA could only afford to pay him €600,000. While most observers wouldn’t blame him for trying to earn a living the best way he can, Leekens was universally ridiculed when, on quitting, he said he’d achieved 90% of his aims as national coach. This comment came from a man who had failed to take one of Europe’s most talented squads of players to the Poland/Ukraine championships.

Next to jump was Anderlecht boss Ariel Jacobs. Jacobs didn’t so much quit as come to realise that no one wanted him to stay; not the fans, not the club management (despite crocodile tears from Roger Vanden Stock) and not many of the players. The writing had been on the wall when he was the only person to be booed on the day Anderlecht clinched the Jupiler League championship. Jacobs spent over four years in the role but never looked comfortable. He’s had a strange career, getting the Anderlecht job, his first top post apart from two years as Genk’s Technical Director, at the age of 54. Jacobs won a couple of titles but totally failed in Europe; he had to go.

On the same day, José Riga announced he was leaving Standard Liège. Riga is another man who reached a top post late in life as he was also 54 when he took over Les Rouches.  Prior to Liège, Riga was Technical director at second division Visé. He’s a man who is almost universally liked but generally considered to be too lightweight for a senior coaching post. Riga will now join Michael Bruyninckx – the renowned specialist in brain-centred-learning – in Qatar’s Aspire Academy. They’ll be part of a group looking after 200 young players aged 10-18 (mostly from Africa and Qatar) with the hope that the Academy will be recognised as a world leader – and provider of players – ahead of the 2022 World Cup.

Just before these two jumped ship, Club Brugge coach Christophe Daum had decided that six months in that job was just about enough. Homesick, Daum said he would be spending more time with his family. The appointment of the high-profile coach had certainly come as a surprise. In the event, if his style of play had not pleased everyone, including the players, Daum had achieved by finishing runners-up to Anderlecht after just a short time in the job. It came as no surprise to learn that Daum’s decision to leave Club Brugge had been known to his successor, Leekens, for some time but that the Belgian FA had been completely in the dark until ‘Mister Georges’ started clearing his desk.

So there are now three top vacancies: the Belgian national team, Anderlecht and Standard Liege. There are numerous names in the frame; many can be ignored but, as usual, the names of Michael Preud’homme and Eric Gerets have been thrown into the mix. And, once more, their wage demands would appear to put them out of reach. Preud’homme is hooked up to Al-Shabab until 2016, on an extremely generous salary; Gerets is under contract to Morocco until the 2014 World Cup. There is still a strong rumour that Gerets will take over the Belgium team in the summer and a fans’ petition gained 14,000 signatures in 24 hours. Gerets commented that as he was Belgian, he was interested; adding though that he was currently not available. It’s hard to see him breaking his contract or agreeing to work for the money on offer at the Belgium FA. It would be good if I was wrong, especially about the latter eventuality.

Philippe Collin, cousin of Anderlecht President Roger Vanden Stock, is in charge of recruiting a new national team coach. As well as being Anderlecht’s General Secretary, he is also a Vice President at the Belgian FA, in charge of technical matters. Collin says he wants someone who is tactically and mentally strong, and preferably Belgian.  He’s a somewhat shadowy figure who sees no conflict of interest in his two posts. That maybe so, but it would be interesting if, one day, Preud’homme announced he was a candidate for both posts (national team and Anderlecht).

Another name being mentioned is Franky Vercauteren, currently on the beach after being sacked by Al Jazeera after just seven months. Vercauteren has already had a brief spell in charge of Belgium and a much longer stay at Anderlecht, were he was once promised a job for life. He recently admitted that he couldn’t see himself being invited to take on either of those two roles again. That leaves Standard Liège for the ‘Little Prince’ and that eventuality can’t be ruled out. Other names in the frame at Liège are Rene Vandereycken, another unpopular ex-national team coach, and two promising younger men: Lokeren’s Peter Maes and Kortrijk’s Hein Vanhaezebrouck. Standard have just come out of a ’year of transition’ and the fans might have to get used to that scenario.

As for the Anderlecht post, most indicators point to a Dutch appointment. Vitesse Arnhem’s John van den Brom is still in the running despite saying he’s happy where he is and he doesn’t speak French. His knowledge of English and Dutch might be an acceptable compromise, as Anderlecht have a high opinion of the ex-Ajax assistant trainer. They’d have to pay anything between €750,000 and €1 million to get the Vitesse coach who’s been working miracles. Van den Brom is on his way to getting Vitesse into Europe with a team of average age just over 20. Other names circulating are ex-PSV coach Fred Rutten and AZ’s Gertjan Verbeek. Another factor here is that Anderlecht will go directly into next season’s Champions League pools – and hence have an increased budget – in the event that Bayern Munich beat Chelsea in Munich!

Where does that leave us? The Belgian FA – universally seen as being amateurish – have been outbid by Club Brugge in terms of paying Leekens. Given the state of the game in Belgium – the country that gave the world the Bosman ruling – the FA can’t afford to pay the top man, in terms of salary and compensation, who they would like to take them to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. There’s a certain amount of irony there, given the monetary value of the squad in question.

Anderlecht can afford to pay more than the Belgian FA but they are not a club that likes to pay top dollar. As for Standard, their newish President Roland Duchâtelet is not renowned for spending money and many are unsure of his motives. Given that situation, it will be no surprise if all three posts go to coaches who are seen as ‘affordable’ rather than being the right man for the job.

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