September 21, 2022

Union Saint-Gilloise: A club run by a poker player defying all odds

It all happened so fast. This is how the most associated with Union Saint-Gilloise feel. In short, twelve months ago, the club from the capital had just left the Belgian second division and was preparing for its first season in the first division for 48 years. They went on to finish second in the champions Club Brugge.

Now, between their third qualifying round home-and-away tie with Rangers for a place in the play-off phases of the Champions League, the Brussels club is thinking big. Union beat the Scottish side 2-0 on Tuesday and are now one game away from meeting either PSV Where monaco duel for a place in the group stage.

What’s remarkable is that Union came so close to being crowned Belgian champions last season. The team remained unchanged from the promotion season and raced ahead to finish first in the regular standings before the split – as is customary in Belgium – was halved and Union finished second in the four-man play-off for the title; two defeats in three days in Brugge proved their atrocious loss.

However, this might turn out to be a small change if Union manages to Champions League group stages of their first European campaign. If they succeed, they will have to play their home games away from the art deco Joseph Marien Stadium, which holds just under 10,000 spectators but does not meet UEFA standards.

This is an area of ​​Brussels, close to the Eurostar terminal, which is full of cafes and bars but had little appetite for football until a few seasons ago when Union was a club mediocre second division. They had been Belgium’s most successful club before World War II, but remained outside the top flight for almost five decades.

The steep rise began when Tony Bloom, owner of Brighton & Hove Albion and a professional poker player, and his friend and business partner, Alex Muzio, bought the club in 2018. Bloom leaves day-to-day management of the club to Muzio and Limerick-born sporting director Chris O’Louglin, and to say that things went well would be an understatement.

Many more have joined the labor movement since the pandemic subsided. Most home games start hours before kick-off with essentially an ‘outdoor festival with fans’ blocking the streets. Reasonably priced subscriptions ranging from £135 to £335 also encouraged support. Although there has also been a shift towards a more sustainable and community based one.

My own personal opinion on football and my way of being is reflected very well in the fan base,“said Muzio The Belgian football podcast. “The sympathetic nature of the support base, positivity, anti-racism, anti-fascism, community spirit are integral to my own personal ethic. I don’t have to ask myself: ‘What would the fans want me to do?’ I just have to think, ‘How would I like this to work?’

Muzio admitted that Union’s bumper season was in part due to the effects of the pandemic and falling revenue for bigger clubs like Anderlecht, Brugge, Ghent and Genk. That said, Union has used its resources well. Their policy was to sweep players who didn’t have the easiest round, in order to prioritize rookies with resilience who are unlikely to take success for granted. Many of them were recruited from clubs playing in the second and third divisions of foreign countries.

bourgeois christian being one of them. The 29-year-old centre-half was preparing for a sixth season at English Premier League Portsmouth club when Union made the call at the start of the promotion-winning season. Burgess didn’t know he’d be close at hand to face the likes of real Madrid and Bayern Munich so early.

Most of us, except one or two, have never done anything of this magnitude, playing for a place in the Champions League,“says the former young Arsenal player. “We have a massive underdog mentality. Our character means that we enjoy these kinds of games.

After beating Rangers in nearby Leuven in the first leg, Union will be hoping to get the job done at Ibrox on Tuesday night. A trip across the border to France or the Netherlands will follow. It’s just a case where this small Brussels suburb takes it all.

The consensus is that Union will fall back to mid-table this season given their modest resources and with stronger teams around them. However, Union players, as well as their new manager Karel Geraerts who replaced Felice Mazzu after the latter took over from Anderlecht in the summer – have had the chance to add an exciting new chapter to their career history. They have a free pass, which should give them even more license to enjoy it.