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Union city blues

Pm Doutreligne is proud to support a Brussels club with a singular history, and opposes a merger with local rivals

In August my team, Union Saint-Gilloise, played a pre-season friendly, five miles away at FC Brussels. Although both based in the Belgian capital, the two clubs could hardly be any more different.

Union are an old-school Brussels "family club". The glory days (11 league titles and two cups) are long gone – it's almost 40 years since they played in the top division – but the rather ordinary level of football on the pitch hasn't dented the supporters' pride in the yellow and blue of Saint-Gilles. Our opponents, meanwhile, play in the second tier, one division above us, and have come to represent the exact opposite – the loss of a once glorious identity through business opportunism and one ill-advised merger too many.

As mergers go, this story takes some beating. In 1895 it began with Daring Brussels FC, the country's second-oldest club (after Royal Antwerp), who played in the Brussels borough of Koekelberg. Twenty-five years later, having absorbed local minnows Bruxelles Football Club, Sporting Molenbeek and Skill FC, and relocated to an adjoining borough, the club became Royal Daring Club Molenbeek. Then, in 1973, came the "big one", the merger with Royal Racing White (formerly known as White Star Woluwé AC), resulting in the birth of RWD Molenbeek, who were Belgian champions in 1975.

Finally, in 2002 it was decided that the only way to avoid bankruptcy was to merge with – shock, horror – a team from outside Brussels: KFC Strombeek. The official name of this genetically modified outfit is Football Club Molenbeek Brussels Strombeek, and their nickname, Le Brussels, is not just misleading: it's a downright lie.

This I know because, historically, Union Saint-Gilloise are the arch-enemy of Daring Brussels. Such was the intensity of the pre-Second World War Brussels derbies that plays were written about the rivalry.

It was Daring that, in 1935, put an end to Union's 60-game unbeaten streak in the top flight. These days, nostalgic RWD Molenbeek supporters tend to give FC Brussels a wide berth. Some of them watch RWDM 2003, an AFC Wimbledon-type venture gone horribly wrong, currently languishing in the bottom tier of the regional league. Some of them have lost interest in football altogether. Incongruously, a lot of them come to Union – the sworn enemy.

They don't necessarily support Union but tag along for the pleasure of watching that rare beast: a family club where tradition still plays an essential part, a club steeped in Brussels folklore, a club which never had to lose its identity – and its soul – by merging with another club. It's particularly fitting that there are often a handful supporters of AFC Wimbledon to be found at Union. Other teams frequently "represented" on the Union terraces include Italian Lega Pro outfit Pergocrema (with whom we are twinned at supporter level), Truro City and a fellow "giant of yesteryear", Red Star FC – the Parisian team founded in 1897, like Union.

The most vocal of our supporter groups – the Union Bhoys – is named in tribute to Celtic. This regularly leads to the surreal sight of supporters in Celtic attire belting out the USG chant "Toute ma vie je resterai un Unioniste" (I'll be a Unionist till I die).

For all their easygoing attitude, however, Union Saint-Gilloise are not immune to the harsh realities of modern football. Saint-Gilles is one of Brussels' poorest boroughs (season-tickets cost the equivalent of £60), and the club relies partly on council money as sugar-daddy sponsors and investors are hard to find.

Then there is the matter of the ground. The Joseph Marien stadium is situated within the confines of the picturesque Duden park, which belongs to Belgium's Royal Trust. Furthermore, the awe-inspiring main entrance of the stadium is listed. Both distinctions, while undoubtedly prestigious, make it impossible for Union to renovate their ground up to top-flight standard. Should Union return to the Pro League, the only viable option would be to play elsewhere. Or, as has long been advocated by a few local politicians and many FC Brussels directors oblivious to tradition, the clubs could "join forces" and become a one-stop alternative to Anderlecht.

Although geographically situated in the capital, RSC Anderlecht is not a Brussels club. They were founded in 1908, by which time  Brussels already had a plethora of teams in every division. But Anderlecht were quick to identify a gap in a the market, namely that, apart from glorified pub teams, the western suburbs had no one to support. It is estimated that less than five per cent of their season-ticket holders are from the commune of Anderlecht, and seven per cent from Brussels.

If the Union-FC Brussels merger happens, we, too, will start our own AFC Union Saint-Gilloise. In the meantime, we shall not, we shall not be merged.

From WSC 297 November 2011


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