My Love Letter to Belgian Football

Ah, the most difficult choice in any new FM game… who to manage? With so many leagues and clubs across the world available to you from the start of the game, the choice can be quite intimidating. The goal of the following article is to offer a few ideas for interesting starting clubs in Football Manager 2023. It is a short explanation for why I think Belgium is such an exciting country to manage in.

Rich History of The Game

The Kingdom of Belgium possesses rich football history, going back to 1863. That’s only 6 years after the oldest football club in the United Kingdom was formed! Belgian First Division (the top league in the pyramid founded in 1895) is among the longest-running on the continent. Given a such long history of the sport in the country, it’s not surprising that Belgium is a footballing powerhouse. The country produces an incredible amount of talent and is currently ranked 2nd by FIFA. Actually, it was ranked 1st for nearly 7 years (between November 2015 and March 2022). Not bad for a country that’s about equal in size and population to the US state of Ohio. It helps that a lot of Belgians are very passionate about their favorite sport. Combine that with the rich pedigree of the clubs from this small nation and you have a recipe for some truly exciting saves in FM23.

And now the real question. Its long and illustrious history aside, what makes Belgian football so special? Why pick a club there, when you could have so many other leagues to occupy your valuable game-time in FM23? Some of us only have time for one save in a Football Manager game. Which makes the choice of the club, an important one.

The choice of nation and club can be very important in FM23. This choice can have a huge influence on your playing experience. Do you want a save where you generate a lot of great “newgens” right from the start in your first season? Or perhaps, you would like a save in a league where every season comes down to the wire as the top teams clash in an exciting series of matches? Or perhaps you find it boring to manage in a league where the winner is practically decided halfway through the season. In FM, top teams like Real Madrid tend to win almost all their regular season matches, giving them enough momentum to make any late challenge to 1st position very difficult. You answered “Yes” to all those questions. Then the Belgian Pro League is definitely for you. In Belgium, finishing 1st in the season doesn’t make you the champion.

Wake The Sleeping Giant

If rich footballing history appeals to you then you cannot go wrong with Antwerp FC (Royal Antwerp FC). It is the oldest professional football club in Belgium and among the oldest in Europe. Founded in 1880 (15 years before the creation of the Royal Belgian Football Association) by English students residing in Antwerp. This is not the only connection that the club has with Albion. Royal Antwerp maintained a long-term partnership with Man U. Between 1998 and 2013, Antwerp accepted some 30 young Red Devils on loan to play in its First Team. This was unprecedented for a big club like Man U and allowed its youngsters to earn some valuable experience at the highest league level. Also, some young United players who required European work permits benefited from Belgium’s more relaxed laws.

When you take over Antwerp, you are met with above-average training and youth facilities to match the status of the club. They are definitely not state of art as those used to managing bigger clubs will notice. Improving the facilities is definitely a good objective to work on as you attempt to bring The Great Old back into the international spotlight. And there is much work to be done there! Might even call it a proper challenge.

Despite its illustrious history, Antwerp has turned into a proper Sleeping Giant in recent years. While in the first half of its existence, it featured regularly in the top three of the Belgian top league, success has become rather rare in the last 50 years. All four of its league titles came before most of its current supporters were even born (the last championship win in 1957).

While Antwerp has always been one of Belgium’s most supported clubs, it has been underachieving for several years now. As mentioned above they have not won a league title for some time now. Having spent several seasons in the second division, They were promoted to the top flight in 2000, only to be relegated shortly after in 2004. They made their return to the first division after 13 years in 2017

So if both a rebuild of a historic club and waking a sleeping giant are your cup of tea then go no further than Royal Antwerp!

Football Talent Factory

In Youth We Trust

Anderlecht R.S.C slogan

One of my top reasons for choosing Belgium is its excellent youth rating. It’s among the best in the world regarding the quality and quantity of young talent entering its football academies each year (the ratings in the link are from two years ago but they are still largely unchanged in FM23). Naturally, the game models this accurately. No matter which Belgian club you start with, over time as your facilities improve, your youth teams will eventually receive some incredibly talented youngsters.

One of my favourite newgen wonderkids from FM21. Jean-Paul, a product of Sint-Truiden academy, went on to become one of the most versatile players in my save.

Probably more talent than you will know what to do with. Am I the only one who always has about a dozen playmaker wonderkids in my reserve team?

Obviously, with enough time investment, any football club can be turned into a talent factory. But from the start of the game, some will be better than others in this aspect. Especially if you want to start your wonderkid assembly line as soon as possible. One such club is Brussel’s Anderlecht. A club that, even among other Belgian clubs, puts its youth development in the first place.

Historically, R.S.C Anderlecht has been part of the Big Three of Belgian top-flight football. A title it shares with Club Brugge KV and Standard Liege. They also share a great rivalry, and usually, derby games between them are occasions for a lot of fan celebration and sometimes mayhem.

Year after year, the three clubs have always been the main contenders for the title. The three of them combined to share a total of 57 out of 113 Belgian top-flight titles and usually end up sharing the top three positions. The Big Three have never been relegated from the First Division A. Also interestingly, 34 out of those 57 trophies belong to Anderlecht, making the Brussels-area club a veritable giant among giants. Although recently it has started to look more like a sleeping giant.

The three stars above Anderlecht’s crest denote that it has won the Belgian top championship title over 30 times. 34 times to be exact!

The last domestic championship won by Les Mauves et Blancs was as far back as 2017! An eternity for a club of their stature. In fact, they have also been largely absent from the top three league positions. Anderlecht only had two 3rd place finishes in the last five years. On the other hand, their rival Brugge FC absolutely dominated Belgian football. Brugge won 4 out of 5 titles during the same period. What happened?

During this time Anderlecht has gone through a lot of management changes as well as a difficult process of financial restructuring. Overall it has been a long rebuild and rejuvenation process which only now starting to bear fruit. And what fruit it is!

Anderlecht has one of the youngest First Team squads in the league.

One For the Football Hipsters

And what if you prefer to write your own football history? And to start with plenty of space in the trophy cabinet to fill? Then the following two clubs might be for you. Zulte Waregem and OH Leuven are two of the youngest clubs currently in the Belgian top flight. Both were formed in the 21st century, in 2001 and 2002 respectively. As such they have yet to make a mark in the Belgian Football history books. While Zulte Waregem managed to win two Belgian Cups, OH Leuven starts with a completely blank slate in terms of trophies at the highest level. So any manager taking control of one of these clubs has a chance to bring a golden era to them.

Furthermore, the Belgian Pro League has other interesting options for managers looking for something different and outside of the “mainstream” save choices. If you don’t want to be just another FM player tweeting or streaming about Brugge or even Anderlecht save, then maybe managing a club like Sint-Truidense V.V. will bring you more followers.

Besides having a rather complicated name (to English speakers at least), “De Kanaries” are a very interesting club indeed. It’s not a new club since it was founded in 1924. But in recent years they have been taken over by a Japanese owner with deep pockets. The change in ownership has also brought a change in the club’s transfer policy. Despite being based in Belgium’s heartland of Limburg, the club has a unique focus on developing Japanese footballing talent. The board actually requires you to buy Japanese footballers. You won’t find another club with such a board objective in any other European league. Given Belgian League’s rather loose rules on playing foreign players, this can make for an interesting save indeed. Jupiler Pro League has no limit on the number of non-EU nationals in your squad! Can you build a team that is made up almost exclusively of Japanese players?

Also as an added bonus, which other club can boast of having two Japanese international legends, Shinju Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa?

League Like No Other

Despite being dominated by Top Three Clubs, the Belgian league can be a very competitive league to play in. There is always a chance for surprises (Genk’s 2019 title!) and the title is never assured for even the strongest team. Much of this can be attributed to First Division’s unique competition structure. Unlike most European leagues, the Belgian Pro League uses a playoffs system, akin to North American MLS, to conclude the season. Typically the regular season will run from early August to late April. With each team playing 34 matches during this time. At this point, the top clubs in the regular season will enter the championship playoff phase.

At the end of the championship playoff, the first-placed team wins the championship of Belgium. Each team plays their opponents twice, and the teams are ranked by points, the same way they are in the regular season. The point system in the championship playoff is the same as during the regular season, except that each team starts with half of the points they earned in the regular season, rounded up to the nearest integer. The points gained by rounding are deducted in the case of a tie.

Depending on their final position in the regular season, the teams will either enter Playoffs I (also known as the Championship Playoff, Title Playoffs, or Champions’ playoffs) or Playoffs II (also known as the Europa League playoff or Europe play-offs). Playoffs I are contested by the top-four clubs in the regular season. There is also a sort of playoff for the bottom-ranking teams in the regular season. The team finishing in 18th place is relegated directly. However, the 17th place will battle for its Pro League survival in a promotion-relegation playoff against 2nd place of the Belgian First Division B.

This type of unique league structure makes the Belgian Pro League a good choice for those looking for a different (and perhaps more exciting) experience from most other leagues in Europe. Especially if you are fed up with playing in leagues where merely getting the most points in the regular season is all you need to be crowned champion. However, this does not make the league immune to being annually dominated by one club. As demonstrated by the powerhouse Brugge FC since 2017. And no matter which club you choose, nothing is more satisfying than being one that finally topples the dominant team. Happy managing!

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Written by crusadertsar


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