Sorry Edgar, only one footballer really pulled off a pair of spectacles in our humble opinion...
Of all the great footballers in history, precious few have been known for wearing glasses. Edgar Davids became iconic for his specialised goggles following the glaucoma he suffered. Off the pitch David Beckham flirted with them around the time he embraced sarongs and his wife’s underwear. Lilian Thuram’s adoption of glasses following his playing career was branded an attempt to mimic Malcolm X by Patrice Evra. Nobby Stiles of course wore glasses as thick as milk bottle bottoms off the field, but coped with contact lenses on it.
The perils of wearing glasses on the pitch were best illustrated in the famously tempestuous Intercontinental Cup of 1970. Having achieved a 2-2 draw in Buenos Aires, Feyenoord returned to Rotterdam to face an Estudiantes side known (perhaps unfairly) more for their uncompromising tackles than their quality of play. When defender Joop van Daele put Feyenoord into an early lead Oscar Malbernat snatched the glasses off his face and crushed them into the ground.
Perhaps the one player (other than Davids) most noted as an on-field glasses wearer was Belgian schemer Jef Jurion. Yet what was remarkable about Jurion was not merely his chosen eye wear but also his versatility. Rarely has there been a player who featured in more positions during his career, especially at the highest level.
Jurion began his career at Anderlecht in 1953 and success came to him almost immediately. Physically slight (even for a 17 year old) the young Jurion was placed on the right-wing, away from the physicality of central midfield. On the flanks the youngster was able to demonstrate the elusive dribbling ability for which he would become famous. Although not blisteringly quick, he had a superb ability to deceive opponents with a drop of the shoulder or a body swerve which saw him find space time after time. At the suggestion of his club Jurion tried to adapt to contact lenses, but found that they hurt his eyes, and so wore a specially adapted pair of glasses.
At Anderlecht the unquestioned figure head was Jef Mermans, a physically powerful striker who had earned himself the nickname “The Bomber”. With Jurion on the right wing and Mermans playing through the centre, Anderlecht had a winning formula, for the youngster provided the crosses which the veteran could finish off. It proved a successful time for the club and Jurion captured Belgian league titles in his first two seasons with the senior team.
Jurion’s performances at club level soon brought him to international attention and he made his debut against France on Christmas Day 1955. At this time though, Jurion struggled to maintain the consistency that would mark his later years. For the national team Jurion’s versatility became a real asset as he was asked to fill in at multiple positions. Within his first few years he featured at his usual right-wing, inside-forward, and half-back. Wherever he was asked to play he acquitted himself well and came to be an easy solution to whatever problems the team might have. In 1959 he was even asked to fill in at centre-forward after Rik Coppens was injured prior to a 2-2 draw with France.
It was in 1960 that Jurion’s position at club level first began to change. When Frenchman Pierre Sinibaldi replaced English manager Bill Gormlie, the club looked to make a tactical switch. The 1958 World Cup had seen Brazil triumph using a 4-2-4 formation and Sinibaldi was keen to follow suit. Anderlecht’s previous success had been found under the WM system of three at the back, but Sinibaldi saw four central defenders as the way forward.
One of the key things the new manager also wanted to alter was the role of Jurion. A player of his talents was considered to be wasted out on the right-flank where his contributions would be intermittent at best. Instead Sinibaldi wanted Jurion to be involved as often as he could. Jurion moved to the inside-right position but was asked to play from deep. In effect he had switched from winger to playmaker.
The change in role brought out the best in him. He had already been voted Belgian player of the year in 1957, but now, along with Paul Van Himst, he became the outstanding individual talent in the country. Sinibaldi had always admired the quick and neat passing which Jurion had demonstrated in his early years, but he encouraged him to play a more expansive game and to broaden his range of passing. Jurion had the vision to spot difficult passes, now his manager was keen for him to attempt them.
Jurion’s scholarly appearance may have suggested that he was unsuited to the more physical aspects of the game. Admittedly his glasses prevented him from attacking aerial balls with the gusto that some might have shown, but the intelligence of his game meant that he rarely needed to use strength or size. For Jurion’s positioning and particularly his shielding of the ball meant that it was very difficult for opponents to dispossess him legally.
Sinibaldi’s results were not immediately felt on the team, but by 1962 Anderlecht were league champions yet again. That success meant entry to the European Cup where they faced Real Madrid in the first round. The record of Los Merengues was a truly frightening one at that stage. With Di Stefan0, Puskas and Gento still in the side they had been finalists the previous season and had won five of the first seven European Cups. A 3-3 draw at the Chamartin stadium had vindicated the decision to attack in the most challenging circumstances. The second leg remained a stalemate with 85 minutes gone until Jurion launched a rasping drive from 25 yards out to settle the tie.
He had now arrived as one of Europe’s premier players. That opinion was vindicated soon after as Jurion finished fifth in the voting for the France Football Ballon d’Or. Given that Belgium had not participated in the 1962 World Cup (Josef Masopust, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and Dragoslav Sekularac who finished ahead of him all starred in Chile), it was a startling achievement.
The good times at Anderlecht just kept on coming and although their European Cup run dented their hopes in the 1962-3 season, the club (and Jurion) won four consecutive league titles in the years following that. At 31 Jurion moved to Gent to take on a job as player-coach and in the twilight of his career spent time with Lokeren. Although he never again enjoyed the success he had with Anderlecht, Jurion remained a technically fine player whose calm in the centre of midfielder never left him.
Jurion was, in many ways, prototypical of the Belgian players who would carry the team to unprecedented success in the 1980s and 90s. Both Wilfried Van Moer and Enzo Scifo demonstrated the intelligence on the ball, the ability to hold off opponents and to spot a pass that marked Jurion out as one of the best midfielders of his age. Neither though combined the full range of talents that Jurion had, nor were able to perform so consistently or display the versatility that set Jurion apart from his rivals. It was more than just the wearing of glasses that made Jurion unique.