Belgian football clubs have enjoyed memorable European nights with Anderlecht and Standard Liege leading the way for Belgium. Yet it was an unfancied club just 25km south of Antwerp that would upset the odds in Europe during Belgium’s first golden generation of the 1980s.
Founded in 1904, KV Mechelen are one of Belgium’s oldest teams, first tasting success during the 1940s when they won the league in 1943, 1946 and 1948. But their rise could not be sustained and were relegated to the second tier in 1955.
The club would yo-yo from the top flight to the second tier of Belgian football throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Things looked the same when the 1980s arrived, with Mechelen relegated from the top flight by the end of the 1981-82 season. Little did the club know it would kickstart a comeback beyond their wildest dreams.
Up stepped John Cordier, a highly successful businessman in IT, to become president of the club in 1982. Mechelen soon won back promotion to the top flight by the end of the 1982-83 season. Instead of continuing their yo-yo tendencies, Mechelen under manager Leo Canjels impressively finished the 1983-84 season in sixth.
But Cordier was not content and wanted to reach new horizons. This meant relieving Canjels as manager halfway through the season when the club was midtable and his replacement Ernst Kunnecke guided the club to 12th at the end of the 1984-85 league campaign.
As a result, Cordier began to invest heavily throughout the summer of 1985, turning to the Netherlands to buy experienced Australian born centre back Graeme Rutjes from Excelsior and Erwin Koeman from Groningen – the older brother of Ronald.
Despite Cordier’s financial backing, Kunnecke failed to get the best out of the squad, limping to 11th in the 1985-86 season. Cordier sacked the German manager near the end of the disappointing league campaign and replaced him with Dutchman Aad de Mos. Sacked by Ajax the previous year, de Mos in his three seasons at Amsterdam won two league titles and was still a young manager at just 39 years old.
Cordier yet again made sure to back his new manager with funds, with de Mos taking full advantage by acquiring experienced Belgian internationals in goalkeeper Michel Preud’homme, defender as well as soon to be captain Leo Clijsters and Dutch international Wim Hofkens.
Coupled with their retained players, de Mos’ first full season as Mechelen was a roaring success by finishing second in the league behind Anderlecht, while also winning the Belgian Cup by defeating RFC Liege 1-0 thanks to Piet Den Boer’s winner.
Winning the Cup meant qualifying for the 1987-88 Cup Winners’ Cup and their first foray into European football. This meant even more investment from Cordier, with Israeli striker Eli Ohana arriving from Beitar Jerusalem and a young 21-year-old midfielder named Marc Emmers. The arrival of Ohana meant the sale of Ronny Martens to Gent, who had scored 15 goals along with Den Boer in the league to propel Mechelen to second place.
Their first-round opponents in the Cup Winners’ Cup were Dinamo Bucharest, with the first leg played in Belgium on the 16th September 1987. In front of just 12,000 fans, Mechelen edged their Romanian opponents 1-0, Den Boer with the winner on 50 minutes.
The second leg in Bucharest two weeks later seemed a tough challenge as playing in Eastern Europe was never an easy proposition, but de Mos had built a strong defence that had conceded just 18 goals in the league the previous season. They were able to transfer their tightness to Europe, nullifying Dinamo’s forwards along with the passionate crowd, winning 2-0 with goals from Hofkens and Den Boer.
Mechelen would face St Mirren in the second round, with the Scottish side proving a tough nut to crack in the first leg, holding the Belgians to a goalless draw on the 21st October. However, Mechelen prevailed in the second leg on November 3rd, with Ohana scoring twice to quell the plucky Scots. Four clean sheets in four European games showcased why they had the best defence in Belgium.
Yet their opponents in the quarter-finals were a step up from the opponents they had faced so far in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Dinamo Minsk came with a good reputation in Europe, reaching the quarter-finals of the European Cup in 1983-84 and the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup the following season.
The first leg was again held in Belgium on the 1st March and it was a tight affair with the Belarusians as defensively tight as Mechelen. But the game turned on its head when Dinamo Minsk’ midfielder Andrei Shalimo was sent off on 81 minutes. The deadlock was broken five minutes when De Wilde took advantage of a poor clearance to lash the ball home past goalkeeper Andrey Satsunkevich to take a crucial lead to Belarus.
Despite being 1-0 down, the Belarusians were confident of turning the game around in Minsk two weeks later. The second leg was played in front of 50,000 fans, with the temperature below zero, as snow covered the entire pitch apart from the six-yard boxes.
However, despite the cacophonous atmosphere in Minsk, the fans were silenced on 29 minutes when a ball over the top broke the offside trap to set Ohana through on goal and the Israeli striker comfortably put the ball past Satsunkevich into the net.
It was a body blow for Dinamo Minsk as they needed three goals. Despite equalising in the second half, cheered on by the raucous crowd, Mechelen showed their defensive steel by professionally navigating the second half and progressing to the semi-finals (2-1 on aggerate) where they would face Atalanta.
Now the Bergamo based side of 1988 was markedly different to the one today, as they were playing in Serie B after being relegated the previous season. They only qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup after reaching the Coppa Italia final the previous season, losing to Napoli 4-0 on aggerate, but Napoli qualified for the European Cup after winning the Scudetto and so the Cup Winners’ Cup spot went to Atalanta.
Mechelen were seen as the favourites come the first leg in Belgium on the 6th April. Things looked to be going to plan when they took the lead after just seven minutes when Ohana continued his good form in Europe by volleying home a free kick from the right. But a team is most vulnerable right after they score, with Mechelen finding out less than a minute later when Atalanta also scored from a freekick on their right, as midfielder Glenn Stromberg converted from close range.
Pleased with securing an away goal, Atalanta sat back to preserve the draw, which looked a good tactic as the second half wore on. But Mechelen would break the Italians’ dogged resistance on 83 minutes. A well-worked free kick routine was brilliantly cleared off the line by Atalanta, but a rushed clearance from one of the defenders was met with an emphatic volley by Den Boer that squirmed past goalkeeper Ottorino Piotti.
With the game ending 2-1, both sides had reason to be confident come the second leg in Bergamo two weeks later in front of 40,000 spectators. A quiet first half then erupted to chaos on 39 minutes when Soviet referee Valeri Butenko awarded the Italians a penalty for handball, much to the fury of Mechelen’s players with several players surrounding the referee.
Unmoved by their protestations, the decision stood and Oliviero Garlini buried the ball into the bottom corner. With ecstatic fans igniting numerous flares, Mechelen were on the backfoot as halftime arrived and Atalanta would go through on away goals as things stood. A piece of inspiration was needed and it came on 57 minutes.
Winning a free kick on the left, Erwin Koeman lofted the ball into the box, which was meekly headed away towards the right of the box. Waiting there was defender Graeme Rutjes who hit a brilliant first-time volley that rifled past Piotti into the bottom corner.
Wheeling away in delight, the crowd was stunned at the defender’s equaliser. With Mechelen now leading 3-2 on aggerate, Atalanta began pouring forward in search of an equaliser that would take the game into extra time. But once again the Belgians’ staunch defence blunted their opponent’s attack and they would kill the game on 80 minutes.
Receiving the ball on the left just outside the box, Marc Emmers cut inside to leave a defender slipping onto the ground before striking the ball low into the bottom corner that Piotti could not keep out. Atalanta had no answer to Emmers’ goal, as the final whistles resulted in utter delight from their players, racing away to the corner of one of the stands to celebrate with their fans in reaching the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup.
Only Ajax stood in their way from European glory and it was a chance for de Mos for personal revenge. Despite winning two league titles at Ajax, political manoeuvrings led to technical director Johan Cruyff replacing de Mos as manager.
Despite the desire for revenge, Ajax were seen as overwhelming favourites to win. Their squad had a litany of talent – Danny Blind, Jan Wouters, Aron Winter, Arnold Muhren, John van’t Shchip, Rob Witschge and a young Dennis Bergkamp who had just broken into the squad. Yet Ajax were coming into the game under the interim management of Barry Hulshoff after Cruyff left for the post at Barcelona. The final was played in Strasbourg on the 11th of May infront of less than 40,000 fans and would take 16 minutes for the game to turn on its head.
As an Ajax attack broke down, the ball came to Emmers who played a one-two with Den Boer. Receiving the ball from the striker, Emmers burst into the Ajax half and was seemingly through on goal when he was cynically hacked down by Danny Blind. Such was the blatant attempt to hack him down, the Mechelen players responded furiously at Blind’s challenge and referee Dieter Pauly from West Germany sent him off.
With a one-man advantage, Mechelen sought to take control of the final, with goalkeeper Stanley Menzo denying Den Boer from close range and then parrying a header to make sure the first half would end goalless. The deadlock would be broken just eight minutes into the second half. Receiving the ball from a throw-in on the left touchline, Ohana toyed with midfielder the centre back Frank Verlaat before whipping a ball into the box.
Ohana’s fellow strike partner Den Boer quickly moved to the near post ahead of his marker Peter Larsson to head the ball past Menzo to score. Ajax then quickly reacted by putting on Dennis Bergkamp and then striker Henry Meijer. Mechelen’s tight defence once again showcased their resoluteness but there is always one golden chance for a side in a final and it soon came for Ajax.
Trying to atone for his slowness in picking up Den Boer for the goal, Larsson pushed up from left back and received the ball in midfield. Jinking past a challenge, he then played a one-two with Witschge and then the Swede lofted the ball to John Bosman whose fierce volley was stunningly tipped over the bar by Predu’homme.
Most of the Ajax bench had their hands on their head in disbelief at how the Belgian international saved Bosman’s volley. Mechelen’s defence once again held out as they did in previous rounds to shut Ajax out. When the final whistle blew there was a sense of euphoria amongst the Mechelen players in what they achieved.
De Mos on the other hand showed his sense of euphoria by running onto the field, turning to the Ajax board in the stands and raising his middle finger. Speaking to Dutch TV channel NOS in 2018 his thought process behind it was simply: “I had gotten my revenge.”
KV Mechelen, playing in a town of 60,000 inhabitants, had shocked the European football world by stunning a former European giant in Ajax. It was the crowning glory in a season where they finished 2nd in the league to Club Brugge. Yet de Mos, under the wealth of Cordier, made sure they would not be second best for long by winning the Belgian league in the 1988-89 season for the first time in 41 years.
That season also heralded another European triumph for Mechelen by impressively beating European Cup holders PSV Eindhoven 3-1 on aggerate in the European Super Cup. They also put up a staunch defence of the Cup Winners’ Cup by reaching the semi-finals only to lose to winners Sampdoria.
Yet what goes up must come down with de Mos leaving the club for rivals Anderlecht at the end of the season. Despite reaching the quarter finals of the 1989-90 European Cup, star striker Den Boer would then leave for Bordeaux that summer, as the investment by Cordier began to slide as his finances were on the wane. Ohana would leave for Braga while Koeman also departed and in 1992 came the announcement from Cordier he could no longer invest in the club.
Relegation would soon follow for Mechelen, but nowadays the club are in the top flight, winning the Belgian Cup back in 2018-19. Despite not competing in European club competition, those heady heights of the 1980s when Mechelen made Europe’s giants tremble will live long in the memory of their fans.
By: Yousef Teclab / @TeclabYousef
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Icon Sport