Zawisza Bydgoszcz kick-off their first ever European campaign on Thursday, against Belgium’s Zulte Waregem. But what can be expected from the side who finished fourth in the Pro League last season? Luckily, EKSTRAKLASAreview was able to get the lowdown from BeNeFoot.net’s Belgian expert Gary Niblock.
Not many can pick out Waregem in an atlas and indeed one famed Belgian football journalist once got lost on the way to the Regenboogstadion but Zulte Waregem are now firmly placed on the footballing map of Belgium. In less than ten years as a full-time professional outfit, they have been one of Europe’s poster boys for punching well above their modest financial weight with a budget that is dwarfed even by the parachute payments Championship clubs receive in England.
It is surreal to think that just a year ago, the future of football in the south of West Flanders was at the centre of one of the more bizarre controversies of recent years – the proposed move of Zulte Waregem to Antwerpen – Belgium’s second city that was shorn of top division football for the first time in over a century. KV Oostende were to then move to Waregem, thus reducing the number of clubs in the province as a precursor to a madcap merger between Essevee and their local rivals KV Kortrijk. There were shades of the rationalisation of clubs in Australian sport but thankfully the idea fizzled out and Decuyper has cut all ties with the club.
If it was a risky move of gamesmanship in order to put pressure on the local authorities to give the green light to making the Regenboogstadion a football-only ground and worthy of one of the country’s top sides then it worked. This summer has seen the start of a rebuilding job that will effectively culminate in an all-new arena being constructed on the same site, which is set to boast a capacity of around 13,000 with enhanced VIP facilities, the stands close to the pitch as in England and a bowling alley and fitness suite.
While the stadium will be renewed in stages (in the short-term the necessary upgrades have been made to satisfy UEFA), the squad has had to be overhauled in a much shorter space of time. Thorgan Hazard leaves for a loan spell at Borussia Mönchengladbach having been crowned as the best player in Belgium, the imposing Junior Malanda left midway through last season for VfL Wolfsburg, the ambitious KAA Gent have poached Sven Kums and would also like Ibrahima Conté while Club Brugge pulled off a shock move for captain and stalwart on the right of the defence Davy de fauw.
However, the success of those aforementioned younger players has had a positive legacy, that of seeing the club carve out a niche for itself. Foreign clubs have sat up and taken notice of the manner in which talented prospects are given their first taste of regular first-team football and are nurtured in a setup that allows them to thrive and grow both as players and people. Billionaire-backed AS Monaco were very keen to loan rightback Yarouba Cissako who has de fauw’s big shoes to fill.
Other young players have taken the opportunity to make permanent moves to Essevee including two from England’s biggest clubs. Chuks Aneke joins from Arsenal after 17 goals on loan at Crewe Alexandra last season and fellow midfielder Charni Ekangamene has swapped Manchester United for first-team opportunities. Both players admitted they didn’t take much persuasion to follow in Thorgan Hazard’s footsteps. Two famous names will join them in the ranks from the second tier – Thorgan’s younger brother Kylian and Christian Benteke’s sibling Jonathan.
The mastermind behind this operation is former policeman Francky Dury. The 56-year-old was a good manager during his first spell in charge when he lifted the club from the lower tiers to the UEFA Cup after a Belgian Cup win in 2006 but in his second stint, he has put into practice all the skills he acquired when in charge of Belgium’s under-21 team as well as the time he spent as the Belgian FA’s technical coordinator. He combines the roles of head coach and sporting director in Waregem, which allows him to shape the club as he wishes, à la Arsène Wenger.
What is so impressive about Dury beyond his ability to pull rabbits out of a hat time and time again is his winning mentality. Despite being in charge of what remains a very small club in financial terms, he is not only not afraid to take on the big guns- he relishes the battle and has faith in what his team can achieve on the pitch. When Zulte Waregem just missed out of an incredible maiden Belgian title on the last day, it came as little surprise to Dury who fostered belief and daring in his squad.
Last season saw them finish in the top four and lose the cup final 1-0 to fellow overachievers Lokeren. The fact that the squad had European football and one or two long-running transfer soap operas surrounding their leading players to deal with led Dury to label it as an even more impressive campaign. This time around the start of the season has creeped up on everyone, with this game coming just over two weeks after Belgium bowed out of World Cup 2014 and that means that even for master coach Dury, there is something of the unknown about the upcoming encounter:
“Are we ready for Thursday’s game? That is a very difficult question. I think that the second qualifying round of the Europa League comes around too soon, for every team. We also have the misfortune that Sammy Bossut is still on holiday after the World Cup and that (second choice goalkeeper) Sébastien Bruzzese is injured. We must go on and there’s no point complaining about it.”
Zulte Waregem will be wary of their opponents Zawisza after Śląsk Wrocław’s shock win over Club Brugge last season. However, should they safely navigate their way through, the early momentum they will have gathered should stand them in good stead to mount another challenge for the top six play-offs. In the last two seasons, the club with a budget of €9million lost just ten regular season games out of sixty, twice qualifying for Europe. Zulte Waregem are used to surprising us now…so much so that we shouldn’t be surprised anymore.