As Belgium celebrates World Cup qualification, we look at some of the most famous Flemish names to grace the English top flight.
Belgium’s achievement of reaching their first World Cup finals in 12 years shouldn’t be that much of a surprise to Premier League football fans, given the number of stars currently plying their trade in the English top flight.
But once upon a time, our Flemish-speaking European brothers were something of a luxury, with only the occasional big-name Belgian star shining on English shores and often for only a brief amount of time.
With that in mind, here a five of the most famous Belgians to grace the English Premier League during it’s twenty year history.
Branco Strupar – Derby County (1999-2003)
Though born in Zagreb to Croatian parents, Branco Strupar became a naturalised Belgian after impressing during a long stint with league club Genk.
In five years with the Limburg club he won promotion to the Belgian first division as well as the Player of the Year award for 1998, finishing that season with 22 goals to his name. His final year with the club brought a league title before DerbyCounty came calling.
In July 1999, the Rams shelled out £4.2 million to land the forward and while injuries curtailed the number of appearances he made for the club over the following three seasons, he maintained a habit of scoring crucial goals against league rivals like Leicester, Everton and Sheffield Wednesday.
All in all he amassed 16 goals in 41 appearances in the English top-flight and remains something of a fan favourite among the PridePark faithful.
Emile Mpenza – Manchester City (2007-2008)
One half of Belgian’s answer to the De Boer brothers, Emile Mpenza enjoyed a much more varied career than that of his brother Mbo who represented just eight clubs compared to his brother’s 12 and counting.
But it was his single season in the blue half of Manchester that sticks out most. Signed on a free transfer by then manager Sven Goran Erikkson, many questioned the Swede’s sanity after bringing in a player who had previously been on the books at Qatar club Al-Rayyan.
However Mpenza quickly set about showing just why he had managed to amass 19 goals in 57 appearances for the Belgian national team, scoring decisive goals against Middlesborough, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur.
His time at the Etihad was brought to an abrupt end when Eriksson was dismissed over the summer, with the club opting to release the forward, who found employment with Plymouth.
Luc Nilis – Aston Villa (2000)
Possibly one of the biggest tragedies to occur in the English top-flight came just after highly-rated Belgian international Luc Nilis arrived at Villa Park.
The forward had come to the Premier League after dazzling for PSV Eindhoven, where he formed a formidable strike partnership with the Manchester United bound Ruud Van Nistelrooy. In fact, the Dutchman wasn’t the first to benefit from Nilis’ obvious talents, with former PSV teammate Ronaldo describing the forward as one of his best ever strike partners.
Things started with a bang at Aston Villa, with Nilis scoring a scorching goal on his full debut against Chelsea. Big things were expected, but what happened next shocked everyone, as a collision with then Ipswich keeper Richard Wright saw break his leg.
It would prove to be his last actions on a football field, as Nilis’ career came to an abrupt end and left Villa fans wondering what if.
Marc Degryse – Coventry City (1995-1996)
Marc Degryse may not be a household name to you or I but Wednesday fans the world over will never forget his contributions during a single season with the Sheffield side.
Signed for a paltry £1.5 million after enjoying relative success with native giants Anderlecht who had previously paid over the odds to recruit him from bitter rivals Club Brugge, manager David Pleat saw the forward as the long-term successor to David Hirst.
But while he failed to find the net frequently, Degryse did form an excellent partnership with Dutch midfielder Orlando Trustfull and ended up netting eight crucial goals that kept Wednesday in the division.
He was soon on the move again though, transferring to PSV Eindhoven, where he managed just four goals in 31 games before returning to his homeland with Genk.
Philippe Albert – Newcastle United (1994-1999)
The undisputed king of Belgian footballers in the English Premiership, Albert arrived with a reputation as an attacking full-back and lived up to his reputation throughout his 96 appearances for the Tyneside club.
Purchased after impressing for Belgium at the 1994 World Cup, Kevin Keegan shelled out £2.6 million to land the player.
Known as one component of the famed Newcastle defence dubbed “the Entertainers” he absence during the latter half of the 1994-1995 season was noticeable, with Newcastle slipping from league contenders to a sorry sixth place finish.
Previously a target for Manchester United, his finest moment for the Toon Army would come against the Red Devils, with Albert scoring with an audacious chip to round-off a famous 5-0 win over Ferguson’s men at St James Park in 1996.
The Premier League title may have eluded him but after departing for Charleroi in 1999, his name continued to ring around the terraces, with fans singing “Phillipe, Phillipe Albert” to the tune of the popular Rupert Bear theme.
image: © Erik Daniel Drost