Union Saint-Gilloise have known for months that they would play one of a handful of teams in the Champions League qualifiers: Benfica, PSV Eindhoven, Monaco, Dynamo Kyiv, Fenerbahce and Glasgow Rangers were the clubs that stood out.
All of them are household names. Union are a different story. You’d know the name only if you’ve read the deepest history books, or if you combed through Europe’s top league tables last season, trying to find just one that wasn’t hurtling towards being wrapped up weeks in advance by the biggest and richest clubs in their country.
In Belgium, newly promoted Union Saint-Gilloise surged to the top of the table early in the season and, much to the surprise of the establishment, the 500/1 outsiders never gave their lead back.
They were, however, playing in the one major league where that wasn’t enough.
The Athletic was granted behind-the-scenes access to a historic season to tell the story of how a pair of Englishmen bought a famous old Belgian football club, fixed them up and took them to the Champions League.
This is the rebirth of Union Saint-Gilloise, a fairytale that still doesn’t quite have its happy ending.
The year was 2021 and it was a sunny July day in Brussels. Anderlecht, one of Belgium’s ‘big two’, were hosting the season opener against Union Saint-Gilloise.
Felice Mazzu, head coach of Union, embraced his opposite number Vincent Kompany on the sidelines. Union’s CEO Philippe Bormans, a cheerful man with a penchant for horse eventing, spoke to local television.
“This is a match we’ve been waiting for for three years,” said Bormans of the new owners of the club, “but the fans have been waiting 50.
“We’re ready. It’s taken long enough. It’s time to start.”
Technically Bormans was overstating things, but not by much. The two clubs, both based in Brussels, are separated by less than three miles, but were separated in the league for 48 years after Union dropped out of the top flight. In that time, Anderlecht established themselves as by far the biggest club in the city, with only arch-rivals Club Bruges capable of competing in terms of national support and money.
Yet this was not a superclub taking on a minnow. These were two of the three most successful clubs in Belgian football history — it’s just that one of them has been away for a while. More on that later.
Standing in the tunnel at Anderlecht’s stadium, pristine turf in front of them, every player was confronted by the same text painted in English above the doors:
This is the Capital of Belgian football.
Home of the Beautiful Game.
Home of Talent.
Home of Champions.
It is designed, surely, to inspire those in Anderlecht’s unmistakable purple kits, but it served only to fire up those in yellow from across town. Newly promoted Union won 3-1 and the country took notice. Coach Mazzu, however, described it as the “easiest match to start the season” because everyone expected Anderlecht to win. His team could play without pressure. How would Union fare when they were favourites? How would Union cope with the pressure of being top of the league? How would they cope in the play-offs to secure the championship?
Belgium has a peculiar league system. Finishing top doesn’t guarantee you anything more than a place in the Europa Conference League. Instead, after playing the 17 other teams home and away, the top four carry half their points total into a six-game play-off. They then play each other home and away again, and the team with the most points wins the league and direct access to the Champions League group stage.
On that beautifully warm Sunday in July, however, all that was a speck on the horizon. Anderlecht licked their wounds. Union’s fans celebrated wildly, and their players, who battled to promotion in front of largely empty stadiums during the pandemic, didn’t quite know how to react.
Defender Siebe Van der Heyden, who had just started his first game in the top flight against the club he spent his entire youth career at, offered a simple description.
“Fuck,” he said. “What a beautiful moment.”
In 2016, Tony Bloom and Alex Muzio began looking for a European football club to buy.
At that point, Union Saint-Gilloise hadn’t been in the Belgian top flight for over 40 years and had a smaller budget than many amateur sides. Their fans weren’t thinking realistically about promotion. This was a club trying to bob along in the second tier without risking a return to the third tier. They were surviving, not thriving.
Generally, when someone buys a football club, there is usually one glaring question we ask — why?
And we will get there.
But first another question — how?
Muzio and Bloom, who made their fortunes crunching data, used a database to narrow down their options. They filtered out leagues that don’t allow foreign investment, like Germany and Norway, then narrowed it down to leagues in which they believed they could reasonably aspire to win the top flight within a decade or so.
The next stage was looking more closely at clubs — do they have a history of crowd trouble? Do they have any issues that could turn the fanbase against new ownership?
One club in the Netherlands, for example, was an attractive proposition by most metrics but problems with violence in the stands spooked the prospective owners.
“We were looking for months, and shortlisted some other clubs,“ Muzio, now co-owner and president of Union, tells The Athletic.
“The reasons those didn’t happen were simply because we didn’t get a good feel for them, the fanbase, or the location didn’t work, or we didn’t feel they’d welcome foreign investment, which is a very real thing,”
Then they found Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.
“They already had a foreign owner and they were okay with it, which was massive because it meant we weren’t buying it off a local bloke where there were going to be elements of the fanbase that were then going to be opposed to being owned by someone from overseas. They didn’t mind it. Because it really upsets some fanbases.”
There were practical reasons too.
“I can get to the ground from my house (in north London) in three hours. There are clubs north of Hull where it would take me as long, so it was incredible that there was a club available where I’d be able to actually be there as much as I needed.”
Then there was the kicker: Union weren’t just a small club with potential, they were a sleeping giant. With 11 league titles, they are third in the all-time list of Belgian championships behind cross-town rivals Anderlecht and the megaclub of modern Belgian football, Club Bruges.
Union still boast the longest unbeaten streak in the top division — 60 games — and were successful in the smaller continental competitions that predated the European Cup (or even the founding of UEFA). However, their most recent championship was in 1935. They had been out of the top flight since 1972 before Muzio and Bloom swept in. As their new president phrases it, “With respect, they’d been shit for ages.”
Before he bought a football club, googling Muzio’s name would only produce one relevant result: a classic A-Level story from a local newspaper about an 18-year-old from Sussex who excelled in mathematics, got four As and headed to his university of choice.
As a football fan with a gift for numbers, he eventually found a job at “the very bottom” of Starlizard, a sports data and analytics consultancy.
There, Muzio worked his way up to become a trusted friend and advisor of Bloom, the poker player turned sports gambler who founded a betting empire, first splitting from now-Brentford owner and former partner Matthew Benham before making his millions with Starlizard.
Those millions allowed Bloom to transform his boyhood club Brighton and Hove Albion from a League One playing in an athletics stadium, into an established Premier League side playing in a proper football ground. Brighton’s American Express Community Stadium is a gleaming monument to how far the Sussex club has come, a transformation powered by Bloom’s millions, intelligent use of data and a sophisticated infrastructure that the club believes will insulate them from any departures — such as Ben White’s £50million ($61.4m) sale to Arsenal last summer or technical director Dan Ashworth’s protracted defection to Newcastle last month.
Brighton’s ascent has been slow and steady. But the realities of the Premier League are such that unless you get taken over by a multi-billionaire or a state with a questionable human rights record, then it is almost impossible to amass the revenues required to consistently challenge at the top of the division.
“I really enjoyed the experience of owning and being chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion, but I’ve been wanting the challenge of trying to be successful at another football club as well,” Bloom told The Athletic.
“The Premier League is so competitive that it is difficult for Brighton to even play in Europe, let alone win the Premier League.
“So the thought was to buy a club in a country that, first of all, was friendly to foreign investment and where there was a real possibility of potentially challenging for a title. So when Union Saint-Gilloise became available, it was a real opportunity to awaken this sleeping giant, with the big bonus of only being two hours from London.”
While Union and Brighton are linked by Bloom owning stakes in both, those at the Belgian club are keen to clear up any perception that they are a feeder team to the Premier League side. Nor are they part of one of the club networks that are becoming increasingly popular in the football world.
“Club networks tend to share services, staff, resources, and they align off-field activities, style of play etc,” says Muzio.
“That simply isn’t the case with us and Brighton. I believe Wigan and Brighton have exchanged more players than we have in the last few years.
“They’re very separately run organisations with very different goals.”
However, with Bloom’s investment in both, there will always be a link between the two, and it was key in Brighton beating Serie A and Bundesliga rivals to sign Union’s star striker Deniz Undav in January. Undav had joined Union from the German third division while still working in a factory after his numbers popped off the screen – like Brighton, Union lean on analytics and data to fuel their decision-making.
The data suggested Undav was capable of playing in any of the continent’s top leagues let alone the Belgian second tier where they were at the time. They pulled out of signing him originally, however, as his agent was insisting on a release clause.
“We approached the possibility of signing 35-40 other players after that,” says Muzio of a drawn-out process.
“But he was just sat there at the top of the list, his numbers standing out like a sore thumb so eventually we went back and got something done.”
Undav scored 17 league goals en route to promotion in 2020-21 and then two of the three goals to beat Anderlecht on that opening day last July as Union returned to first division football. When he eventually agreed his transfer away from Union, Muzio cried. Multiple times.
But let’s get to that point first.
It was not lost on Union Saint-Gilloise that the fixture computer could have been kinder when they saw their season began with a trip to Anderlecht then a home game against defending champions Club Bruges. Perceptions were that they would do well to stay up. They were handed odds of 500/1 to win the league. To say they were unfancied is an understatement.
But that was externally. Internally they felt they had a 50 per cent chance of breaking into the top four, and with it the championship play-offs. All with the same starting XI that had gained promotion?
“Yeah,” says Muzio.
“Because we thought the team was amazing.”
“They’d romped 1B (the second tier) and it was a huge blessing in disguise, retrospectively, that we got pumped in the cup at home to Anderlecht during that promotion season, and I say that because we weren’t bad in that game, but second half, every shot they had just went in and we lost 5-0.
“But the effect that it had was it put a load of teams off of our players and off our team. They just thought the league was poor.
“They were wrong, because we were very confident in the data we had gauging the quality of all these relative teams. The best thing that happened, though, was that nobody wanted our players.
“We thought we were about the fifth-best team. Maybe 50-50 to finish in the top four.
“Two games in, I believed we could win the league.
“We beat Anderlecht 3-1 and we absolutely blew them away. Demolished them. I cried my eyes out that day because I just couldn’t believe it had happened. The next week we were amazing against Club Bruges but just couldn’t score and lost 1-0. (Former Liverpool goalkeeper Simon) Mignolet was man of the match.”
By mid-August, they were top of the league and had started the season so strongly that they were worried about teams coming calling for their stars at the deadline of the summer window, but no phone calls came.
By January they were seven points clear of second-place Antwerp and strike pairing Undav and Dante Vanzeir, newly capped by Belgium, were both chasing the golden boot. Union had scored the most goals, conceded the fewest and had a promise from the players that they were all staying beyond the January window.
“When I start something, I want to finish it,” Undav told club media at the time. The German was bought by Brighton on deadline day of the January window but loaned back to Union, partly on his own insistence as they chased not just a top-four spot for the play-offs, but now a championship title. A first since 1935.
Consecutive games in late January against three of the country’s biggest clubs were a test, but Union beat Gent, drew 0-0 at Club Bruges, and then beat Anderlecht again to pull nine points clear of the defending champions and 15 ahead of their city rivals.
“It would be easy to say they ran out of steam,” says Will Downing, a commentator on the Belgian league’s world broadcast feed for nearly a decade.
“But that simply isn’t the case. Bruges just caught fire.”
“We got more points in the second half of the season than we did in the first,” says Muzio. “We lost one game between October and the end of the regular season. We won 14 of our last 15 away games or something like that.
“It wasn’t that we dropped points in the end, it was that Bruges just started winning every single game. They won nine on the spin and we dropped a few points. There were several games they didn’t deserve to win but I’m not bitter, that’s football.”
Bruges went on a tear under new coach Alfred Schreuder after Philippe Clement left to take over at Monaco. Union maintained an advantage and were clearly headed for the championship play-offs but the focus now was how many points ahead they would be before totals were halved ahead of the big dance.
After their final game of the regular season was called off due to crowd trouble away at already-relegated Beerschot, Union were awarded a win that meant they finished five points clear of Bruges, 13 ahead of Anderlecht and 14 above big spenders Antwerp. They had made history yet again.
However, if they were to become the first newly promoted club to win a major European league since Kaiserslautern rocked the Bundesliga in 1997, it was going to come down to those head-to-head clashes with Bruges; the beast, the megaclub, the Belgian institution who had won three of the last five championships.
The irony was not lost on many in Belgian football that Club Bruges, the team who had complained most about the play-off system and pushed for its abolition, were the club that was thanking its lucky stars for its existence as the regular season faded to black and the play-offs came into view.
Fixtures were announced and the disrespect towards ‘little Union’, perceived or otherwise, continued as the league and their television partners chose Club Bruges vs Anderlecht for the final day, banking on the biggest two clubs playing a title showdown.
For Union, the games with Bruges came on matchdays three and four of six. Back-to-back games where the title would almost certainly be decided. First up, Anderlecht.
Felice Mazzu is stood in front of his squad ahead of their play-off opener at Stade Marien, their picturesque stadium nestled between a forest and the neighbourhood of St Gilles.
“You know this team doesn’t like the duel. This team doesn’t like the fight. This team doesn’t like the war.”
On the sidelines, as the teams warm up, however, he is honest about the shortcomings creeping into his side.
“If we have opportunities, we have to finish them. That was the problem in our last game. We had so many and couldn’t score.”
Captain Teddy Teuma is usually the man charged with rallying his side and today is no different.
“Today we need to focus. To prove wrong all the people who think we’re not ready.”
Union win 3-1 against their crosstown rivals, beating them for the third time in three attempts this season. They are three wins from completing the fairytale.
The trip to Antwerp comes next. It ends goalless, but in a fortunate twist, so does Bruge’s game at Anderlecht.
There’s no escaping it now. Union are three points ahead of Bruges and face them twice in a matter of days.
First comes the game in Brussels and Teuma is rallying the troops again.
“It’s our time. It’s our final. It’s our match!” he screams.
USG are the better side but struggle to finish their chances until a second-half penalty gives them the chance to break the deadlock.
Up steps Vanzeir. The 24-year-old forward is another of Union’s reclamation projects, plucked from the C team at Genk after some loan spells in the second tier. He is now a full international with Belgium and being watched by Premier League and Bundesliga clubs on a near-weekly basis.
But he hits the post.
Then Club Bruges score.
With Union pushing for an equaliser, Bruges make it 2-0 in the dying seconds and the sides are now level on points. If the table remains like this, Bruges would be champions.
And so to Bruges, where Union know a win puts them back in the driving seat but a draw means they need to better or match their rivals’ results in the final two play-off games.
Another goalless first half gives way to fear, but Mazzu is keen for his players to stay confident.
“Believe more and we will score,” he says at half-time.
Union centre-back Koki Machida receives a second yellow card with half an hour to go.
Then the worst happens.
A freak own goal deflects off goalkeeper Anthony Moris, a player from Luxembourg who was unemployed for nearly a year before being picked up by USG.
In the last minute, Casper Nielsen drills home from outside the box for Union. Mazzu is on the pitch. Assistant Karel Geraerts is with him and so are half the squad. It’s 1-1. Union have kept their dream alive.
Or have they?
VAR intervenes. There was an offside in the build-up. Centimetres. Possibly less. Nielsen’s face says it all.
Union’s fans continue to sing and cheer in the away section but this is the moment they went from being the miracle to needing one.
“As soon as we lost that game, we had a seven per cent chance of winning the title at that point,” says Muzio, “But they went up to Antwerp and won and that was it.”
The championship was gone, but the Champions League was still on the cards.
Finish second and they’d be in the third qualifying round with Rangers and Benfica.
Once again, Union’s players stood in the tunnel at Anderlecht.
This is the Capital of Belgian football.
Home of the Beautiful Game.
Home of Talent.
Home of Champions.
But now Union are the best team in Brussels. One more win (a fourth from four attempts this season) against Anderlecht would secure them second place and that seat at European football’s top table.
It ends 2-0 to Union.
What followed is complicated.
Anderlecht parted ways with Kompany. They then stunned Union by hiring Mazzu, a coach whose hard-running 3-5-2 style had been derided by Anderlecht supporters who usually expect champagne football. Mazzu, meanwhile, had spent most of the season telling his players that Anderlecht were soft.
Club Bruges came knocking for midfielder Nielsen, who left for €7.5million (£6.3m, $7.7m).
Undav finally completed his move to the Premier League.
Union promoted assistant manager Karel Geraerts, banking on continuity.
Signings arrived in the usual mould for Union, powered by data and unrecognisable to most football fans: Dennis Eckert Ayensa and Gustaf Nilsson from the German third tier, Ross Sykes from Accrington Stanley, Viktor Boone from the Belgian second division, and Simon Adingra on loan from Brighton.
Now come two games against Rangers. Union are guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stage, but their ambitions remain higher.
“To qualify for the Champions League would be a dream,” says Muzio, beaming.
When Union Saint-Gilloise walk out to the Champions League anthem against Rangers on Tuesday, they will be making history once again as the club with the longest gap between European fixtures. But making records is somewhat in the DNA of this club. History courses through its veins.
So what of the future?
“Ultimately it’s the same as last year,” says Muzio, as he wavers between the analytical and the philosophical.
“We’re going to try and do the best we can.
“You can be all bombastic about how good you think you’re going to be and it might make people feel good for a day or two, and the fans get excited, but you might get unlucky, you might just not perform and then everyone is pissed off. We’re just going to build the best team we can build and do what we can.
“Football is such a week-to-week activity. You can get beat one week and everyone just collapses.
“It’s amazing how much people react to results in football. I cannot tell you how insane it is.
“You can batter a team, miss two penalties, have someone sent off for nothing and be unbelievably good and people will still be devastated. And the opposite — you can be absolutely shit, play godawful and the winner goes in off someone’s arse and everyone’s bouncing up and down and you’re all geniuses.
“I know the result is important but on a weekly basis, I’m so, so much more bothered about how we play. First game of the season, if we obliterate an opponent and draw, I’ll be so much happier than if we play shit and win because the obliteration is so much more predictive of future success than the win.
“In our data, we didn’t deserve to lose a single game all year. Which is mind-boggling. We didn’t deserve to win all of them but we didn’t deserve to lose one.
“That’s why I’m so happy with last season.
“Fairytale or no fairytale.”
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