A German-speaking club are enjoying unprecedented success thanks to a strong Italian influence. John Chapman explains
May 23, 2010, was a day that will be long remembered by supporters of Allgemeine Sportvereinigung Eupen. On that day, AS Eupen became the first team from the German-speaking region of Belgium to reach the Jupiler League. With a population of 18,000 and close enough to Cologne to make watching games in the Bundesliga attractive, it’s not obvious how Eupen could put together a team that would one day rub shoulders with Anderlecht and Standard Liège. The answer dates back to October 2008, when Eupen were five points adrift at the bottom of the second division, and the arrival of Antonio Imborgia.
XImborgia played for several Italian clubs in the 1980s before becoming a licensed agent, looking after Gabriel Batistuta and others. He then acted as a sporting director for a number of clubs – Como, Genoa and, still today, Piacenza. Imborgia and his advisors arrived in Belgium and, like many investors before him, embarked on a tour of lesser-known clubs. After failing to reach agreement with Union St Gilloise, Olympic Charleroi and Tournai, Imborgia focused his attention on Eupen. A deal was quickly struck between the club, the city of Eupen and the German-speaking regional government to guarantee the €3 million (£2.5m) required to renovate the stadium in the event of promotion to the first division.
Imborgia got to work via his Belgian intermediary David Lasaracina, another agent. Danny Ost, a Belgian coach with an excellent record in the lower leagues, was brought in and a number of young players were shipped in from Italy. Typically, they were on the fringes of the Serie A squads – with lots of promise and the need to play football on a regular basis. Suitably reinforced, Eupen avoided relegation and reached the 2009-10 play-offs. Despite being outsiders, Eupen came out on top with French striker Mathias Lepiller scoring an eye-catching hat-trick in a 3-0 victory over Roulers.
Lepiller is just one of several players with a link back to Italy. The young striker, 22, is on loan from Fiorentina, along with Alex Costa dos Santos, 21. Other players have arrived from Bari, Parma and Pescara. This is not the first time that a Belgian club has invested in players in such a way. Ten years ago, Arsène Wenger’s friend Jean-Marc Guillou sent out a Beveren team composed entirely of players from the Ivory Coast and last year, on the verge of bankruptcy, Mouscron made a last throw of the dice by bringing in several players from La Liga. The gamble failed, debts multiplied, the Spanish investors disappeared and the club was thrown out of the league mid-season.
Now, people are asking if Imborgia has taken over Eupen’s reins because he loves the city and the region or because he sees it as a way of putting young players in the shop window. Imborgia denies the allegations vehemently, saying he is involved for purely sporting reasons. So far, events tend to back up his words, with only one player sold: captain Mijat Maric, recruited from Bari and sold to Lokeren. Imborgia does have one skeleton in the cupboard: an allegation of match-fixing back in 2002, being implicated with Beppe Marotta, now the strong man of Juventus. They were accused of fixing a game between Como and Sampdoria but the charges came to nothing.
At Eupen, much work remains to be done on the stadium – undersoil heating and floodlights have been installed but a new stand is required to meet regulations and that will mean Eupen playing some home games at nearby St Trond. Already the total cost has escalated to €6m and rumours are circulating that Imborgia, and his investors, might pull out.
Eupen’s first match in the first division was away to champions Anderlecht. Ost, a local Brussels boy, proudly took his team to the Constant Vanden Stock stadium and for 45 minutes they looked like causing an upset. Playing impressive football, Eupen led at the break only for Anderlecht to come out and blow the newcomers away with four goals. Nevertheless, the team showed promise, Lepiller and full-back Alessandro Iandoli caught the eye and with other players unavailable, awaiting clearance from the Italian FA, the future could be bright. The season is young and this is a story that could either have a happy ending or, like Beveren and Mouscron, it could all end in tears.
From WSC 283 September 2010