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Past Legends: Franky Van Der Elst, One Of Belgium’s All Time Greats

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In a recent poll to name the best Belgian footballer of all time, one man rose to the top of the list. The legendary Pele underlined this status by placing the same player in his top 125 players of all time. This is all the more remarkable because the player in question filled one of the less glamorous roles within football — the defensive midfielder.

Franky Van Der Elst was born on April 30, 1961. In 1978 he signed for the now defunct Racing White Daring Molenbeek (RWDM). He played just over 100 games for the club, which is now part of second division side FC Brussels. During his time at RWDM he scored five goals from his deep-lying defensive midfield position.

It was his ability to read the game, break down opposition moves with uncanny positional sense and well timed tackles, whilst providing a human barrier just in front of the defence, that earned him these sorts of accolades. It also earned him international recognition and he won his first cap in 1982.

This was achieved whilst still at Molenbeek. However a move to one of the bigger Belgian clubs seemed inevitable. He was, by now, attracting the attention of one of them, Club Brugge, and in 1984 he signed for the Blauw-Zwarts.

He quickly became an essential element of the team as trophy after trophy was added to Club Brugge's list of honours. He was destined to remain in Brugge for the remainder of his playing career. In all he played 465 matches for them, scoring 15 goals. In his time at the Jan Breydel Stadium he won five Championships, four Belgian Cups, and eight Belgian Supercups.

His international career earns him his place as arguably one of Belgium’s most famous players. He played 86 matches for his country between 1982 and 1998. Never renowned for goal scoring, he finally hit the net against Norway and notched his only ever goal for his country.

He played in four successive World Cup tournaments: Mexico in 1986, Italy in 1990, the USA in 1994, and France in 1998. In Mexico his presence helped win Belgium an all time best 4th place spot, losing to France 4-2 in the 3rd and 4th place play-off final.

Added to these achievements is the fact that he won two Golden Shoe awards — the trophy is awarded to the top Belgium player every year from votes from the country’s sports journalists. Previous winners included such names as four-time winner Paul Van Himst of Anderlecht (a future subject for Euroscore), Jan Ceulemans of Club Brugge, and Wilfried Van Moer of Standard Liege, who won it three times.

It was an impressive achievement for a defensive midfielder whose main role was to help stop the opposition from endangering his team's defence. Having said that, there was far more to his game than being merely a stopper. He had immaculate timing, superb positional sense, an inspirational presence, and a footballing mind that would often preempt exactly what the opponents’ next moves would be.

When he retired from playing in 1999 he became the manager of Germinal Beerschot Antwerp where he stayed for four years. On leaving he went to manage Lokeren where he stayed for a year. Inevitably he returned to his spiritual home of Club Brugge as assistant coach, teaming up with former team mates Jan Ceulemans, Marc Degryse, Dany Verlinden, and Rene Verheyen.

Van Der Elst remained at the club for a further year following the departure of both Verhayen and Ceulemans, who were sacked in 2006. The end came in January 2007 when Franky and Emilio Ferrera, the former Anderlecht player, both left.

Despite this sad end to his connection with the Brugge side he remains an iconic figure for fans of the club and Belgian football generally. His record of four consecutive World Cup tournaments for his country cannot be understated. His presence helped make the national team a hard side to break down.

The real proof of his reputation is the high regard in which he is held by fellow professionals, many of whom discovered first hand how difficult a player he could be when playing opposite him. If anyone is qualified to comment on his game it has to be his  gifted opponents who tried, often in vain, to impose their skill against him.

The supporters of Club Brugge will testify to his effectiveness by saying that very often they didn't realise his contribution, and importance to the team until he was missing from the side. His record of five Championships and four cup wins underlines this view.

Franky Van Der Elst most definitely earns his place as a past legend of the game.

See previous Past Legend entries:

Please look out for Euroscore's next past legend, Florian Albert of Hungary.

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