Mouscron’s demise offered a painful reminderof the fragile nature of Belgian football finances

Hardly a season goes by in Belgium without one club or another encountering a severe financial crisis and plunging down the divisions as a harsh consequence. Will they never learn?

This time it was the turn of little Excelsior Mouscron – a club that had punched above its weight for years – to follow the likes of Aalst, Lommel and La Louviere in suffering the punishment of failing to pay the tax authorities. An amount in the region of £175,000 is not a huge sum compared to the debts incurred by other clubs who went to the wall, but it was big enough in this case because of the nature of the creditors.

The first hint of Mouscron’s financial difficulties emerged in 2006 and they were not even resolved by an investment of £7m by businessman Philippe Dufermont. Despite rumours of a rescue bid by Manchester City, who wanted to use Mouscron as a feeder club, the club’s plight turned into a saga that lasted for most of the first half of the campaign.

Administration followed, with Mouscron lying in a respectable 10th place with 23 points. With the players unwilling to risk any injury that might jeopardise their chances of moving elsewhere, Mouscron failed to turn up for two games. A youth team represented the club in a subsequent fixture against Lokeren – whose 5-0 win came a few days before Mouscron were wound up and removed from the league by the Belgian Football Association (KBVB).

Lokeren, who had also won an earlier fixture against Mouscron, were among the opposing clubs most affected by the KBVB’s decision to expunge Mouscron’s record from the table. By forfeiting six points, Lokeren found themselves in danger of the drop and duly complained, only to be somewhat placated when the KBVB told them that only one club – Mouscron – would be automatically relegated. If Lokeren are to fall too, it will be via the end-of-season play-offs against the top-placed clubs in the second division.

Some countries, notably England, penalise such clubs by deducting points, but with each serious transgression in the far more strict Belgian league, clubs run the risk of starting the next season one division lower. Mouscron were found guilty on four counts so have been told that any reformed side must start in the fourth division next season, unless a merger – or a fusion as it is known in Belgium – can go ahead with near neighbours RRC Peruwelz, who would be expected to maintain their current third division status assuming they avoid relegation. The new club would be known as Mouscron-Peruwelz.

Ironically, Peruwelz have far greater debts than Mouscron but, significantly, no money is owed to the taxman.

The tribunal looking into Mouscron’s affairs criticised the KBVB for operating a flawed system, but that will be of little comfort to the club’s supporters. The only grain of solace was provided by three fellow top-flight clubs – Roeselare, Club Brugge and Zulte Waregem – who all promised Mouscron’s season-ticket holders free entry to their games.

For a club who had retained their place among the elite since achieving promotion in 1994, Mouscron’s descent to the depths of Belgian football will be a salutary lesson for many. Coached after earning promotion by Georges Leekens, who went on to lead the national team, the club rose to third in the top flight, were twice Belgian Cup runners-up and competed twice in the former UEFA Cup – making history by playing one of their home ties across the border in France on Wasquehal’s ground because their own Stade Le Canonnier was deemed unsuitable.

Extra ammunition
There have been numerous coaches of the Belgium side since Leekens and the latest incumbent Dick Advocaat, who was appointed in September, raised a few eyebrows when he asked the KBVB if he could combine the job with that of coaching AZ Alkmaar in his native Holland following the dismissal of Ronald Koeman. Even more eyebrows were raised when his request was agreed to, thereby giving critics with extra ammunition should he fail in his objective of taking the Red Devils to the European Championship finals in 2012.

Advocaat subsequently found himself in the curious position of sanctioning the transfer of Belgium international Sebastien Pocognoli from Alkmaar back to Standard Liege. The left-back signed a four-and-a-half-year deal, saying: ”I’m glad to be able to return to the club who raised me.”

Pocognoli arrived nine days too late to prevent Standard’s humiliating 4-0 home defeat to Anderlecht, who strengthened their position at the top of the table with their first success
in the Stade Maurice Dufrasne since 2002. Late own goals by Moussa Traore and Eliaquim Mangala compounded the embarrassment for Standard, who will have scant chance of a third successive title triumph unless they make up ground to finish in the top six – which will determine the main honour for the first time in a controversial play-off format.

Anderlecht’s joy at mastering Standard came with the added satisfaction of seeing the hosts reduced to 10 men after Axel Witsel’s dismissal for a foul on Roland Juhasz, even though Witsel’s two-game suspension was subsequently lifted after a Standard protest. Bad feelings between the clubs had simmered since Witsel broke Marcin Wasilewski’s leg with a terrible challenge in the previous game between the sides in September – for which the perpetrator received an 11-game ban (later reduced to eight games) and death threats.

The absence of the Polish defender, who was expected to be out of action for a year – but may just return by the end of the season – has been offset by the continued prowess up front displayed by the remarkable Romelu Lukaku, who will not be 17 until May. A product of Congolese parents who, happily for Advocaat, now have Belgian nationality, Lukaku confirmed his position as the league’s top scorer with two goals in Anderlecht’s 5-0 away win at Germinal Beerschot.

Anderlecht went into February 19 points clear of Standard and six in front of second-placed Club Brugge, who have signed Belgium defender Peter Van der Heyden from Mainz.

Such is Anderlecht’s current form that Brugge will need far more than a new left-back to prevent Ariel Jacobs’ side from regaining the title.