I’ve decided to blog random bits of history, whether it be about the Belgian Pro League, the second tier, European competition or The Belgian Cup (Beker van Belgie). The reason I’ve thought up this segment is not only to educate myself about the past, but to anyone who reads this, if anyone actually does, and to see that Belgian football isn’t about 1 or 2 teams, or the odd great player produced quite regularly actually, and that teams in the past competed and that the impossible is sometimes possible.
This, erm…edition? is about the KV Mechelen side from the 1987/88 season who triumphant to win the Cup Winners Cup which of course no longer exists. My memories of this trophy are the archived videos of Arsenal beating Parma, Arsenal losing to Real Zaragoza, Chelsea beating Stuttgart, and Lazio winning the last ever final at Villa Park, beating Real Mallorca 2-1.
But eleven years before the dismantled tournament finally ended, a small club in present terms based in the province of Antwerp rose to win their one and only major European trophy in tournament form and for a minor era in their existence, they were the best in Belgium.
After winning the Belgian Cup the year before, they entered the CUP WINNERS cup (clues in the title of how they qualified for the tournament) on a high, as the club began the decade in the second tier, and then ended it magnificently. But back to this piece, they started the tournament in mid September 1987, defeating Dinamo Bucharest home and away, winning 3-0 on aggregate. Looking now, Dinamo Bucharest finished runners up in the league and cup so even though they finished empty handed, it nearly worked out for the best.
Progressing to the next round, they played St Mirren, who were managed by Alex Smith, and who didn’t take advantage of a crucial goalless draw in Belgium, for where they were dismantled by the young Israeli striker Eli Ohana with goals either side of the half in the second leg. Unlike Dinamo who narrowly missed out on silverware back home, St Mirren ended the season 9th in a league of 12, and Alex Smith unfortunately losing his job.
Now entering the quarters finals, Mechelen seemed to have the luck of the draw if we look at this teams right now, but back then they were there on merit as all cup winners the season before, which is tough at a time where no footballer had what they have now with all the science, luxury hotels, private jets, etc getting to eastern Europe like Mechelen had to then do in this round, facing Dinamo Minsk of Belarus.
After a tough first home leg in March, De Wilde scored his only goal of the tournament in a 1-0 victory with a winner in the last five minutes, making his only goal very important taking a lead over to Minsk. But nerves were settled by that man again, Eli Ohana, who scored just before the half hour in front of around a 50,000 capacity crowd. With the away goal, Dinamo were basically doomed as an equaliser before the hour wouldn’t be enough to salvage anything as a semi final beckoned for the team from the Antwerp region.
A tough semi final loomed for KV Mechelen as they had Atalanta who had finished runners up in the Italian cup the season before, so without being a cup winner, took full advantage of a European journey progressing as far as they did.
Mechelen, who won 4-2 on aggregate, didn’t have it all their own way, but made it look easier going by that score, and winning both matches 2-1. With Ohana, AGAIN, opening the scoring early with his 4th and final goal of the tournament, they were immediately pegged back a minute later, showing that maybe, Atalanta were their toughest test thus far. With the match entering the last ten minutes, Den Boer, who also managed 4 goals throughout the tournament scored a vital winner, which later on, wasn’t as vital as the one mentioned soon.
Going to Bergamo off the back of a win, it was still tough as Atalanta had that important and vital away goal, and it proved to be vital as they took the lead with a first half penalty from striker Oliviero Garlini. With what could be a hostile crowd, in front of around 40,000 fans packed in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, Mechelen showed courage through new hero’s on the scoresheet, Rutjes and Emmers, who secured Mechelen’s first and only European final (discounting the Super Cup).
But jubilation may have to be tempered as they faced European greats Ajax of Amsterdam, who overcame Marseille in the semis, and with the national rivalry between Belgium and Holland, the final in Strasbourg looked a cracker. You could say David vs Goliath on the European stage with Ajax being no strangers to glory, entering the match as Dutch cup winners, 3 time European cup winners, previous Super Cup Winners, previous Intercontinental Cup Winners and more importantly, the current holders of the Cup Winners Cup!
Odds piled against the plucky Belgians, with courageous players like Ohana and Den Boer who aided with progression to this stage, versus Ajax who had, now, global names such as Rijkaard, Blind, Wouters, Mühren, Winter and on the bench, a hero of mine, in Dennis Bergkamp.
Current Club Brugge manager, Michel Preud’homme would need to be at his usual, very best to give Mechelen any chance against Barry Hulshoff’s side, but in fact, the whole team performed with a heroic win through Piet Den Boer scoring 8 minutes into the second half to claim the title!
After that, you could call it Double Dutch as the European curtain raiser in the Super Cup was won by Mechelen against European Cup Winners PSV Eindhoven who won the Treble the season before too!
That team will always love in the hearts of KV Mechelen fans as one of their greatest moments and maybe, one day, the club will rise again?