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There is a football championship in Europe that has become a kind of laboratory for some years now. In almost all levels of Belgian football there are dozens of foreign properties, even in the smallest and most unknown places. In Eupen, for example, there is a satellite team from Qatar. In Tubize – 20,000 inhabitants in the countryside south of Brussels – there was a South Korean group that had made a reality show with the local team. And again: in Lierse there are Egyptian investors, the Kortrijk is owned by Malaysian, the Mouscron was owned by an Israeli prosecutor, while the second team from Bruges belongs to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, who made it a branch of Monaco.
In Saint-Gilles, a municipality that is part of the Brussels metropolitan area, the local team has been German-owned but has been run by two British investors, Tony Bloom and Alex Muzio since 2018. The famous one of the two is the former: Bloom, a real estate investor, famous professional gambler – nicknamed “the lizard” – and current owner of the Brighton football team, which has been permanently returned to the Premier League after 38 years of absence. With Bloom busy managing the Brighton, Muzio, a close associate of him, follows the Saint-Gilloise on a daily basis.
In Belgium the two have replicated the analytical methods underlying Brighton’s fortunes, but with all the freedom given by a smaller reality and in a context where similar approaches are more unexplored. In less than four years Bloom and Muzio have turned the local championship upside down and now risk winning the national title, as newly promoted, with a second-choice team playing in the middle of a forest, and that no one has had time to see coming. .
The attractiveness of the Belgian championship was initially favored by the success of its football movement, with the men’s national team that after a profound and relatively short reform of the system went from mediocrity to second place in the world ranking, preceded only by Brazil. But there are other benefits too. The league is small in size and just outside the big centers the teams are cheap. There are very affordable tax breaks for investors and the rules on the registration of foreign players are much looser than in other leagues, which is why so-called football timeshares take advantage of Belgium to facilitate the integration of non-EU players into Europe.
All this has made the Belgian championship a laboratory, with all the consequences of the case. The clubs have become more stable, interesting and competitive on average, but the discontent among the fans is widespread – especially in the small towns – and the properties have often operated at the limits of the regulations. This is the case of Mouscron, purchased in 2015 by the Israeli prosecutor Pini Zahavi, which FIFA took out of management after a year by prohibiting prosecutors from having shares or management positions in professional clubs.
The Saint-Gilloise is a different case. It can be compared to Pro Vercelli, which in Italy won seven Scudetti in the early twentieth century only to be overtaken by the teams of the major centers and remain confined to the minor leagues, with some brief appearances in Serie B. The Saint-Gilloise in the early twentieth century of national titles he won eleven, which is why he wears a star on his shirt. From the second post-war period, while continuing to return from time to time in the first division, he progressively decreased until he reached the fourth national series, among the semi-professionals.
When the British investors arrived, the club had been missing from the first division for 45 years. Their interest was attracted by a negligible cost, by the presence of a solid fan base and how in the end it was a team from Brussels, therefore inserted in an area inhabited by over a million people. The St-Gilloise also retained a twentieth-century style, well represented by the place where it plays: the Joseph Marien stadium, built in 1919 within the characteristic Duden park, whose main masonry grandstand is listed as a cultural heritage of the city.
Muzio recently told the British press: «One of the reasons why we didn’t buy in France, Italy or Spain was because we wanted to try and win. It wasn’t just about creating value. The investment was supposed to have fun “. Welcomed by a certain enthusiasm, the new owner immediately began to put his hand to the organization of the club, starting with the youth teams and above all the recruitment system, already a strong point of Brighton.
As precursors of football planned with statistical analysis methods and innovative strategies, they began to re-establish the team by collecting and studying large amounts of data. The purchase of almost every player currently in the team was preceded by about a year of evaluations in a process that starts from the requests of the coach, Felice Mazzù, the son of Italian miners who immigrated to Belgium in the mid-twentieth century. The required profiles are searched in the company’s database, which filters them according to the characteristics and limits imposed by the budget. Then we arrive at a stage in which we try to understand if the profiles found can be integrated into the already existing group, following the philosophy made famous by the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks, with the peremptory slogan “no dickheads”.
“It may seem a bit excessive” has explained Muzio atIndependent, “but it’s just to make sure they’re good guys. ‘ Given that the level of the championship allows it, and the limited budget dictates it, the search for players is concentrated on the European championships less frequented by the other teams, according to Muzio also for snobbery. In this way, between cross-data, psychological evaluations and research in the most unknown leagues, Saint-Gilloise has created a second-choice team that last year was promoted to the first division with 18 points clear of the second, and now in first division is exceeding all expectations.
The captain is Teddy Teuma, twenty-one appearances for the Maltese national team, who played in the French semi-professional championships four years ago. The top scorer, Deniz Undav, is a Turk who grew up in Germany, found in the third German league. The second best scorer, the Belgian Dante Vanzier, is a discard of Genk. Danish midfielder Casper Nielsen was bought in 2019 for half a million dolars and is now worth at least five. In defense Christian Burgess was hired for free when his contract with Portsmouth, the third English league, expired. There is also an Italian, Lorenzo Paolucci, a twenty-five-year-old attacking midfielder used as a reserve, noted for his performance in Serie C with Monopoli between 2020 and 2021.
Taking advantage of the simultaneous difficult periods in which Anderlecht, Club Bruges, Genk, Standard Liège and Gent – the most important teams in the country – are found – this season Saint-Gilloise did not stop at the goal of salvation and came to win 27 matches out of 34 played in the regular season, which ended with five points more than Bruges, who played in the Champions League groups in the winter.
The Belgian league works differently from the others: a bit like in American sports there is a regular season that ends in April and the top four qualified qualify for the playoffs, where the points previously obtained are halved and goals scored and conceded are reset. Enjoying the advantage they have accumulated in recent months, Saint-Gilloise therefore found themselves in the lead with a three-point lead over Bruges, and are now maintaining it. On the first day of the playoffs beat Anderlecht for the third time this season. If he maintains the lead in the five days until the end, he will return to winning the national title 87 years after the last time.
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