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.