David Owen

I can’t be the only European sports follower of a certain age who last week, when the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek hit the news for the reasons we all know about, thought that the name of the place rang a vague bell.

Well, it took a day or two, but eventually I figured it out: in the late-1970s, when I was a football-mad teenager, Molenbeek were one of the best teams in Belgium.

It didn’t last and a visit to Wikipedia informed me that the club had gone bankrupt in 2002.

Happily, I kept on digging, and eventually a very patient and obliging supporter called Alain Meskens notified me that Racing White Daring Molenbeek, to give the club its full, rather wonderful, name, had been revived and had just started playing again in the fourth tier of Belgian football at Stade Edmond Machtens, to the west of central Brussels, scene of its former glories.

It is a story whose surface I have only just started scratching, and that I intend to delve into further; but it seems such a heartening tale of enduring, community-spirited passion that I wanted to jot down what I had discovered without delay. 

After all, I think we could all use a heart-warming story or two at the moment.

A candle light vigil to the victims of the Paris attacks in Brussels' Molenbeek district. The area's football club is finding new life
A candle light vigil to the victims of the Paris attacks in Brussels' Molenbeek district. The area's football club is finding new life ©Getty Images

First, that name: it is explained by a series of mergers, the last between Royal Racing White and the Daring Club de Bruxelles to form RWD Molenbeek (RWDM) in time for the start of the 1973-1974 season.

Remarkably, within two years, the club were Belgian champions, by the gaping margin of nine points, in an era of two points for a win.

With players such as Morten Olsen, who won 102 caps for Denmark and has just stepped down as national coach after 15 years, and Johan Boskamp, described by Meskens as “a cult hero in Molenbeek”, who briefly managed Stoke City in 2005-2006, the club spent much of its first decade in the upper reaches of the Belgian first division.

Meskens, who would have been three at the time, says he can remember everyone spilling onto the pitch when that lone championship was sealed without really understanding why.

But it is Molenbeek’s European record over this period, I am sure, that imprinted the club on my teenage consciousness.

They didn’t get far in the 1975-1976 European Cup, beaten convincingly by Hajduk Split of the then Yugoslavia.

However, between September 1976 and September 1980 Molenbeek embarked on a run that saw it go 14 consecutive UEFA Cup matches undefeated.

This run eventually ended when losing at home to Francesco Graziani’s Torino.

Even then, the Belgians did not go down without a fight, reversing this deficit over 90 minutes in Turin, only to go out to an extra-time equaliser by Graziani, two of whose 97 Torino goals came in this tie against Molenbeek.

The greatest European adventure came in 1976-1977.

A 10-match UEFA Cup campaign that included aggregate victories over West Germany’s Schalke 04 and Feyenoord of the Netherlands, winners in 1973-1974, ended at the semi-final stage in the San Mamés.

Morten Olsen, the former manager of Denmark, turned out for Molenbeek in the 1970s
Morten Olsen, the former manager of Denmark, turned out for Molenbeek in the 1970s ©Getty Images

Having drawn 1-1 at home, RWDM battled out a goalless draw in the industrial heart of the Basque country, to send Athletic Bilbao – who could then draw on the talents of legendary goalkeeper José Ángel Iribar and tough defender Andoni Goikoetzea - through to play Juventus in the final.

An impressively detailed supporter’s history of the club by Stéphane Lievens recounts that the undefeated Belgians earnt a standing ovation.

He also recalls that the Curé of the parish, one Abbé Stoffels, hitchhiked to the game.

Now, nearly four decades on from that frustrating evening in northern Spain, RWDM are back, sporting the same red, white and black strip as their title-winning side.

They lie ninth in the table, with 16 points from 12 games.

Meskens says there are around 2,000 season ticket-holders.

For the moment, they have to share the Edmond Machtens stadium with another club which took up residence during the hiatus in the life of RWDM.

“The most important thing,” says Meskens, “is the club is back in existence. It’s an amazing atmosphere.”

I ask whether the Muslim and other minority communities that have taken up residence in the neighbourhood in recent times, have taken an interest in the club’s return, and Meskens estimates they make up perhaps 25 per cent of the usual match-day attendance.

The vast majority of the playing squad come from the Brussels area.

However, RWD in its second coming, has not yet set up any youth teams; this, one would think, will be a key step in sinking roots back into the local community as it now is.

Johan Boskamp was a cult hero at Molenbeek
Johan Boskamp was a cult hero at Molenbeek ©Getty Images

I ask what Molenbeek was like in the days when Meskens’ grandfather was watching football there, and he tells me the area, which abuts the canal, used to be known as “Little Manchester”.

Based on that evocative phrase, I suppose then that a big part of Molenbeek’s story in recent times has involved the same sort of struggle to cope with the decline of the industries that once sustained it as endured by countless other communities across Europe and North America from Detroit to Redcar.

I think Meskens would normally have been on his way to a match while I was talking to him. Sunday’s clash with RFC Tournai had to be called off, however, in the light of this weekend’s security lockdown in the Belgian capital.

The postponement robbed RWDM supporters of an opportunity to show solidarity with Paris by carrying the French tricouleur and dressing in red, white or blue.

“All together, we will sing a Marseillaise that will be heard all the way to Paris!” the club website still pledges.

A Legend Never Dies, proclaims a banner on the site’s homepage – and three cheers to that.

People unfortunately do die.