The Cinderella of Belgium: The Incredible Soccer Story About Royale Union Saint-Gilloise
Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images. Pictured: Royale Union Saint-Gilloise goalkeeper Anthony Moris of celebrates with his daughter after winning a Jupiler Pro League match.
I’d imagine a lot of soccer fans around the world are focused on Europe’s top five leagues, Champions League, and — right now — the Africa Cup of Nations.
However, there’s a historic underdog story brewing in Belgium and that underdog goes by the name of Royale Union Saint-Gilloise.
A newly promoted club into Belgium’s top flight that resides in the municipality of Saint-Gilles outside of Brussels was north of 1,000-1 before the season to win the league title. Now, they’re currently sitting atop the Belgian First Division table with 47 points and a seven-point cushion over defending champion Club Brugge.
History of Union Saint-Gilloise
Union Saint-Gilloise isn’t your typical underdog that rises up out of nowhere, similar to the way Leicester City did in the 2015-16 Premier League season. Instead, Union Saint-Gilloise is better described as a “sleeping giant,” as they have won the third-most first division titles in Belgian history. However, a lot of that came in the early 1900s when they captured 11 championships and were runner-up eight times from 1904 to 1935.
However, the club fell to depths the supporters never even imagined after World War II, as it dropped out of the first flight and spent almost five decades in the lower divisions.
Return to Glory
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, after 48 years outside of the top flight Union Saint-Gilloise won the Belgian Second Division and was promoted to the Belgian First Division for the first time since 1973.
🏆 WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS !!!!! pic.twitter.com/U18XbJlBhT
— Royale Union Saint-Gilloise (@UnionStGilloise) March 13, 2021
Staying up in the Belgian top flight would be its own challenge, but Saint-Gilloise does things a little different than anyone else and a lot of that has to do with their owner Tony Bloom. Also the owner of EPL club Brighton & Hove Albion, Bloom bought a majority stake in Union Saint-Gilloise in 2018 when they were in the second division.
Bloom is a professional poker play/gambler that bookmakers in England have called “the cleverest man to ever place a bet.” So, it’s safe to say another one of his bets is paying off big time.
Bloom has had a different strategy at Saint-Gilloise that most would call “crazy.” He hasn’t spent a single cent on transfers since the 2019-20 season, instead relying on a data driven approach to bring in “free transfers,” who are players are out of contract with their current club.
That type of recruitment strategy has unearthed some interesting prospects, like the current striker partnership of Dante Vanzeir and Deniz Undav, who combined for 55 goals in the second tier during the 2020-21 season and have netted 27 so far this season.
The reason this type of recruitment strategy is crazy is it requires you to be perfect with the players you’re bring in when you’re facing clubs like Club Brugge, Anderlecht and Genk, which have very large transfers budgets. However, Bloom once again has gotten it right, just like he has done with Brighton in the English top flight.
Belgium First Division League Format
Now, the Belgian first division’s format is a little different than most of Europe’s leagues in that it has a playoff at the end of the season between the top four clubs in the league, as follows:
The point system in the championship playoff is the same as during the regular season, except that each team starts with half of the points they won in the regular season, rounded up to the nearest integer. The points gained by rounding are deducted in the case of a tie.
The top four teams from the regular season enter the championship playoff, with the first-placed team winning the championship of Belgium. Each team plays their opponents twice, and the teams are ranked by points, points from rounding, wins, etc. as in the regular season.
Union Saint-Gilloise hasn’t risen up the table because it’s taking down the big boys in Belgium, even though they started off the season beating 34-time champion Anderlecht, 3-1, on the road. Instead, they’ve gone 12-0-1 against the league’s bottom nine teams, outscoring them by a combined 37-10 goals.
In 2018, Brighton chairman Tony Bloom became majority shareholder of Union Saint-Gilloise, an unknown Belgian 2nd tier side.
Today, they're 1st in the Belgium Pro League with a +26 GD – seven points clear through 15 games.
A new force in Europe ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/UEiFu0Coo5
— Matchday365 (@Matchday365) November 23, 2021
What’s even crazier is the club plays on a ground that only holds a capacity of 9,400 people, which is the smallest stadium of anyone in Belgium’s top flight. So, there’s a chance someone like Real Madrid or Manchester City could be playing a Champions League group-stage match there next season.
Pictured: Stade Joseph Marien. Photo credit: Courtesy of Google Images.
Union Saint-Gilloise still has a long way to go, with 13 matches left to be played in the regular season and the playoffs against some of Belgium’s elite.
However, if they pull it off, it will be the biggest Cinderella story in soccer since Leicester City won the Premier League title.
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