In the Premiership, Belgian footballers are all the rage at the top clubs, with players like Eden Hazard showing they can mix it with the cream of European football. But in Belgium itself, a team who didn’t exist in its present form until the Premiership was 10 years old, and a different Hazard altogether are making the headlines.
Zulte Waregem is the team and Thorgan Hazard is the brother. In the world’s most complicated playoff system, the team from West Flanders is leading the Jupiler Pro League by one point from Anderlecht with four matches to play.
Waregem is a small town in West Flanders with just 35,000 inhabitants. That’s over twice as big as neighbouring Zulte, which has a population of around 15,000. Neither place is on the Belgian tourist route and many Belgians are unlikely to have been to either. However, such is the story coming out of the club, that representatives of the foreign press, including France Football, have recently been typing ‘Zulte Waregem’ into their GPS and trying to work out which one they need to go to (the team play at Waregem).
The club’s annual budget is 8.5 million euros, about one-fifth of the size of Anderlecht’s turnover, and the ground has a capacity of 10,000. When the season started, Zulte Waregem's aim was to get sufficient points to avoid relegation. Now they are top of the Jupiler League and if they can hang on, they will gain direct entry into the Champions League.
If one man were to be singled out for praise, it has to be head coach Francky Dury. Arriving in the early 90s, Dury guided the club –Zultse VV at the time, becoming Zulte Waregem in 2001 after a merger with KSV Waregem - all the way from the amateur leagues to the Belgian first division.
In the 2008-2010 period, two of Dury’s key players were French midfielder Franck Berrier and Senegalese striker Mbaye Leye. With Zulte Waregem getting some good results in the top flight, Dury, Berrier and Leye all used their time in the spotlight to engineer moves to bigger clubs.
In 2010, Dury went off to coach Gent to replace the departing Michel Preud'homme while both Berrier and Leye eventually found themselves at Standard Liege. In theory the moves looked good but in practice they never worked out.
Dury’s rather dictatorial management style didn’t work at Gent – one of Belgium’s five - and his Gent team collapsed in the 2010-2011 playoffs. He was then accused of engineering a move to Club Brugge and sacked. Meanwhile Berrier and Leye had been found to be surplus to requirements by the new management at Standard.
And so it came to pass that Dury, Leye and Berrier all found themselves back at Zulte Waregem at the halfway stage of the 2011-2012 season. Dury worked a little magic and the team avoided relegation but when the current season started, no one thought the Essevee (the nickname dates back to the KSV Waregem days) would finish in the top half of the table, let alone be challenging for the title.
The club did sign a couple of youngsters - Thorgan Hazard on loan from Chelsea and Junior Malanda from Lille - but the transfers went largely unnoticed in a footballing sense. Hazard Junior's previous move from Lens to Chelsea had been interpreted as a way of making his brother feel at home. Thorgan’s subsequent loan move to Zulte Waregem came as a surprise.
So the season started with Dury commanding a team of veteran defenders, a couple of guys looking for footballing revenge, a few youngsters, two loan signings from Anderlecht and some players picked up from the French lower divisions. It didn't look too promising but somehow it worked, and at one stage of the season, Dury's boys went 15 games without defeat.
The standout players have been Berrier, Malanda, Leye and Thorgan Hazard- backed by a remarkable back four of journeymen footballers who have been playing out of their skins.
Berrier has scored 14 goals and has had a bunch of assists; sadly he's already said he wants to leave the club. He's been brilliant but seems to be fading a little in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the playoffs. He's small in stature and may struggle to go much higher in football's hierarchy.
Malanda is the defensive shield in front of the back four and physically he might remind people of a young Romelu Lukaku. He's recently been coming back to form following a dip in January when his 6 million euro move to Fulham collapsed. That move was probably a little early anyway given the boy had just moved from the Lille reserve squad.
Leye has notched 15 goals so far, including four against Club Brugge and Anderlecht. He's big, has pace and is the only player in the squad openly talking about the title. The back four have been consistently brilliant with some observers calling for right back and captain Davy De Fauw (29) to be called into the Belgian squad.
And that leaves Hazard Junior. He's 19 and has been number two behind Berrier in the creativity department. Recently, though, he's been growing in stature and he was many people's man of the match against Anderlecht. He's not Eden, he's Thorgan. He may lack the senior Hazard's explosivity but he’s a real creative force, has a reasonable turn of speed and is not afraid of hard work. He tends to lie deeper than his elder brother and isn’t short of confidence, he recently said it would be good to score in the Champions League before his brother did!
The Essevee fans can't believe what's happening to their team and that could well be true of most of the players too. The danger is that the team could well be broken up as soon the season ends with Berrier, Malanda, Hazard and Leye all likely to be the subject of transfer speculation. Dury has signed a long-term contract but he might not fancy staying on with a weakened team and hardly any money for incoming transfers. It will be fascinating to see if Dury’s team can hold their nerve, and if Zulte Waregem can hold on to their team.
Follow John on Twitter @Belgofoot.