Beyond Belgian Belief: The Union Saint-Gilloise Story
After nearly 50 years out of the top flight, newly promoted Union Saint-Gilloise are on course to become champions of Belgium. A club shattering all expectations through belief, belonging and… Brighton?
In 1973, we saw the end of the Vietnam War, the release of The Exorcist and Leeds United winning the second First Division title in their history. Life was very different to the one we live today, both in sport and wider society. One particular group of people will be relieved those days are bygone: Supporters of Union Saint-Gilloise.
Since the early 1970s, the Belgian side had been floating around the lower divisions, failing to climb back up to the Belgian top flight until last season. For a club that has not been in the First Division for half a century, you may be surprised to hear that they are the third most successful side in the country’s football history.
Union were formed in 1897 and became a titan of the Belgian game almost immediately. Within seven years, they won their first league title, with 11more to follow in the space of 30 years. Their last truimph came in 1935 and the club slowly began to decline in form, beginning to flirt with the bottom half of the table.
Fans were in a serious state of confusion over where the club is going. How can the most successful Belgian club pre-World War Two fall from grace so catastrophically? Then came the 70s, as relegation condemned the club to the dark half of their history. It has taken years of struggle and strife, battling away in the doldrums of a division unbecoming of their heritage, but finally, Saint-Gilloise are back where they belong – and they haven’t stopped there.
After conquering the second tier earlier this year, fans were cautiously optimistic about their future, though it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Union fail to adapt to the intensity of the tougher top flight. However, they have come back in style, as though they had never left.
The Belgian First Division is one of the most competitive on the continent. Union currently sit seven points clear at the top after 21 games. With the likes of Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Gent and Genk trying their best to topple the underdogs, it makes their position even more impressive. A feat to be admired, and a feat that can arguably be attributed to one man from Belfast.
Chris O’Loughlin is certainly a globetrotter. Having taken coaching roles across the planet, from the densely populated Johannesburg to the suburbia of Charlton, the Northern Irishman has built up a great reputation with federations around the globe. He has proven himself to be a club accountant’s best friend and there was no difference in that once he took over as sporting director at Union Saint-Gilloise.
A big part of this club is belonging. With not much purpose or hope for the future, the club were clawing feebly at a shot of redemption. That is until a change in the board in 2018 when Brighton chairman Tony Bloom took control of the club and brought in O’Loughlin and chairman Alex Muzio.
The trio took that theme of belonging and turned it into a recruitment strategy. They looked at players who were cast aside by Belgium’s top clubs and turned them into stars. One of the best examples within the Union squad is Dante Venezeir. The 23-year-old was always rumoured to be a bright star for the future, yet the club that kicked off his career would not even give him a second thought. After a successful loan at K Beershot Wilrijk, having scored 15 goals in 37 games, you would expect Genk to leap at throwing this youngster into the first team to build up some experience. Not a chance.
With another loan spell, Venezeir grew sick of the club that trained him since he was six-years-old and jumped over to the rapidly improving Union Saint-Gilloise. Since his move in 2020, he has become one of the top Belgian talents with a staggering 30 goals in 40 games, leading to a call up to the Roberto Martinez’s Belgium squad towards the end of last year.
Poetically, Venezeir’s rise to success is parallel to Unions. Both had been cast aside by Belgian football’s elite and not given a second thought. Both were hungry for success and both had so much potential. Union took the genius strategy of appealing to Belgian wonderkids’ desire to be the best.
With a Belgian Pro Division B winner’s medal and a national team callup under his wing, Venezeir looks set to add the top Belgian prize of all to his collection, thanks in part to the smart thinking of Bloom, O’Laughlin and Muzio. With only a dozen or so games to go till the title race is over, Union are certainly not underdog champions yet, but their philosophy and desire to win has shocked the world and highlighted that when you look at the game from a different perspective, you truly can sit amongst the best.