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31 March 2015. Just nine minutes into Euro 2016 qualifier Israel-Belgium, fan Stéphane Lievens posts a photo on Facebook Chat. It's a shot of the stands. There's fans with Belgium scarves, a sole supporter wearing an Israel scarf, some funny hats, but most prominent of all: the huge flag bearing the RWDM crest.
Words by: Raoul De Groote
Translated by: Ben van Maaren
RWDM ceased to exist in 2002, but its fans are fighting to keep the name of the Brussels club of yore alive. “No matter where we go, our paths always meet.”
This is not the first time the emblem of the Brussels club has turned up at a match of the Red Devils, the nickname of the Belgian national football team. The flag was also flown at various stadiums throughout the 2014 Brazil World Cup. “When the national squad is playing, there is usually a fan in the stands with an RWDM flag”, says Lievens, a staunch supporter of Molenbeek and the Red Devils. “It’s frowned upon by our national football association, but we always get positive reactions from other supporters. Our aim is to show that RWDM is still alive and kicking.” Grinning, he adds: “I’m just not quite sure everybody knows that the club doesn’t actually exist anymore.”
RWDM, a club established on 1 July 1973 through the merger of Racing White and Daring Molenbeek, folded in 2002. No sooner was the bankruptcy declared or an initiative was taken to have the club live on. A merger with KFC Strombeek resulted in a new club, FC Brussels, with Johan Vermeersch being the new chairman. FC Brussels held out until June 2014, when it too folded. But by then even the most faithful fans had long given up, considering 2002 to be the real end date of their club. Earlier this year, a group of them contacted the council, hoping to re-establish RWDM using the original registration number and the original crest and have them play the familiar Stade Edmond Machtens. Better safe than sorry, the council thought, however, going for long-term security and granting tenancy of the stadium to White Star Bruxelles.
As a consequence, RWDM continues to be a ghost looking for a body. But the soul of the club won’t be rubbed out that easily.
Boskamp’s kit bag
Many fans had their first match experience when they were still Ketjes, as kids from Brussels are lovingly called, and their fathers, grandfathers or uncles took them to see “the game”. Thierry Gobbe was 16 years old and lived in the town of La Louvière when he first visited an RWDM match on his own. “I drove a moped that just wouldn’t be pushed past 25 miles an hour,” he says. “Even with every short cut I could find, it still took me an hour and a half to get there. And another hour and a half back after the match. I remember being gripped right away by the atmosphere at RWDM, which was very different from the atmosphere at Anderlecht, more commonplace, for Molenbeek people are plain, good-natured folk. I won’t find that passion anywhere else, ever again.”
Over the years Thierry Gobbe has amassed an impressive collection of genuine RWDM memorabilia. He saved up for ten years to build an extension to his house just to give them their rightful place. It’s a diverse collection: a complete set of 1930 team cards, folders stuffed with newspaper match reports, a dressing-room door sign, cups and saucers from the club restaurant bearing the RWDM crest, a 1978 trophy – fished out of a garbage can – from a tournament whose participants included Real Madrid, unpaid invoices that had simply ended up out on the street after the bankruptcy, the match ball from RWDM’s last official game at Gent in 2002, vinyl records with RWDM chants, and rows and rows of vintage shirts.
This includes the shirt of former keeper Francis Cuypers. “Goalkeeper shirts are the most difficult to find, what with there being only two per set,” Gobbe explains. “I could not get hold of Cuypers’ shirt at first, for his wife was a stewardess who would sleep in his goalkeeper shirt whenever one of them was abroad for work. It gave her the feeling he was close to her. A few years later, though, she told me that he had quit playing and that she no longer needed the shirt, so she sent it to me after all.”
Some items required quite a bit more effort. “Dirk Lehmann, a German striker, once took his agent to the bistro where I happened to be with friends. He wanted to take us on in a game of table football. If they beat us, we’d have to buy them a beer; if we won, I’d get his shirt. We beat them. And he kept true to his word.”
Some players later feel the urge to see their shirts once more. “Jurgen Vandevelde, once the club’s back-up keeper, is now working in China. There he ran into a former Real Madrid manager who would not believe Jurgen had been a Belgian top-flight goalie. So he mailed me asking if by way of proof I could send a photo of the shirt he had once given to me. See, these contacts with players long after their careers have ended, you could never pull that off at a club like Anderlecht,” Gobbe says, smiling.
One corner of his miniature museum is home to an old but sturdy white kit bag. “Got that one from Johan Boskamp,” Gobbe says. “When he was still playing for RWDM, I once asked him if he wouldn’t mind having his photo taken with me. He took all of his kit out right then and there and handed the bag to me as a gift.” And in the bottom of a display case proudly sits the section of the wooden bench he occupied for ten years as a season-ticket holder. He managed to salvage it by sawing it off just before the stands were torn down to make room for corporate boxes. “It’s those corporate seats that did us in,” Gobbe sighs. “The board thought they’d bring in more revenue, but RWDM was not a corporate club or an international club; RWDM was first and foremost a Brussels club. The only true Brussels club, by the way.”
“RWDM is the soul of Brussels,” agrees Stéphane Streker, a Brussels-based film maker and RWDM supporter, “because Anderlecht quickly became a national club with supporters from both the Dutch and the French-language provinces. At RWDM you will only meet real Brusselaars. There’s good reason their fans chant There’s only one team in Brussels, because if you want to hear the true Brussels dialect spoken at a match, you go to RWDM, not to Anderlecht.”
And thus we touch upon the thread in RWDM’s existence: its rivalry with Anderlecht.
“I remember the stadium speaker announcing half-time and full-time results of the other matches being played,” Streker recalls. “If Anderlecht had won, the result would be somewhere halfway down; but if they’d lost, the speaker would wait, wait, wait a bit more until the end.. and then all hell would break loose.”
RWDM’s biggest victory on Anderlecht arrived in 1975, when the club, chaired by Jean-Baptiste L’Ecluse, won the Belgian title. Supporters took to the streets of Molenbeek, drawing a hearse with a casket, symbolically carrying Anderlecht to its grave. Overcome by exuberance, L’Ecluse, a well-to-do building contractor and Maecenas, even went so far as to say that he would fill the site of the Anderlecht stadium with apartment blocks. Only a few years later, with the club struggling to survive, he had to sell his best players to Anderlecht: Nico de Bree, Benny Nielsen, Morten Olsen… Only Johan Boskamp stayed. “Which explains Boskamp’s long-standing rancour towards Anderlecht: they had bought everyone, except him, a Golden Boot winner and all”, Thierry Gobbe recounts.
Some of the players invested their earnings in the real estate L’Ecluse built in the vicinity of the stadium. “The contract of sale for the apartment where my mum is still living,” Streker tells, “bears the signatures of my parents and that of the seller: Johan Boskamp.” Streker idolised Boskamp. “I cherish the shirt he once gave me and to this day I have his poster hanging in my loo.”
Another milestone in RWDM’s history was when it played Athletic Bilbao in the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. Piet de Visser was manager when RWDM beat Feyenoord Rotterdam in the last eight of the UEFA Cup in 1977. “I remember that match against Feyenoord like it was yesterday,” Streker says. “Not so hard, as it was played on 16 March and my birthday is the 17th, so my dad took me to the match as an early birthday present. Jacques Teugels, who for obvious reasons had earned himself the nickname Jacky Tuborg, made one of the most important goals in the club’s history by converting a penalty.”
In one of his movies, Le monde nous appartient, Stéphane Streker cast Teugels as an extra. It was his way of paying tribute. “I even wrote a brief dialogue between Jacques Teugels and Maurice Martens, just for the occasion,” he says, laughing. “The day after the movie came out, RWDM supporters were invited to come and watch the movie. Teugels, Martens and a bunch of other former players were there too. When Teugels and Martens had their scene, all the fans in the cinema started applauding.”
Party in Bordeaux
The memories linger, the club itself did not.
Real RWDM supporters feel little affinity for White Star Bruxelles, which now plays the Stade Edmond Machtens. “There were twelve paying home supporters recently. That’s about their season average. If it were RWDM, there’d be two thousand right away, guaranteed,” says Thierry Gobbe. “See, no matter where we go, our paths always meet. In 1998, I took my brother and a friend of his to see Belgium play Mexico at the World Cup in France. They are Anderlecht supporters, so as we were on the TGV train to Bordeaux, they were poking fun at me, saying I’d feel very lonely there as an RWDM supporter. But the moment we arrived at the station, we had one after the other supporter greeting me, all of us knowing one another from the RWDM stands. And it was my brother and his friend who didn’t meet anyone they knew. Anyway, we had a fantastic time after the match, painting the town red, although we had made no prior arrangements. It was the same when we held a reunion some time after the 2002 bankruptcy. We hadn’t seen one another in over nine months, but when we did, it felt like it was only yesterday. It’s at times like that when you realise that RWDM will never die. It’s just too big a part of our lives.”