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Belgian Clubs and Foreign Money: A Modern Soccer Mix

TUBIZE, Belgium — There is something incongruous about the pregame razzmatazz at the Stade Leburton, about Michael Buffer’s catchphrase — “Let’s get ready to rumble!” — crackling out of the loudspeakers, and the pulsing, earsplitting techno soundtrack that follows.

Tubize’s greatest claim to fame in soccer is as the hometown of Eden Hazard — the Chelsea star grew up just a few streets away — and its second is as the site of the Belgian soccer federation’s training base. Its 64-year-old club, A.F.C. Tubize, ranks a distant third.

There are only a thousand or so fans here today, for the opening game of the Belgian second division season, and many of them are housed in one of only two permanent grandstands. Occasionally, a train will rattle past on the tracks that run behind the field. Conversations pause for it to pass, then resume.

This is what small-town, small-time soccer has always looked like, not only here but in thousands of similar places across Europe: low-key games between low-key teams in low-key leagues.

But beneath the surface of this sleepy commuter town south of Brussels, and in a dozen or so other small towns and minor cities across Belgium, something has changed.

There has been, and continues to be, a seismic shift in the landscape of European soccer. Longstanding, independent clubs are being subsumed into continentwide networks, used as vehicles for the ambitions of wealthy foreign investors, or hijacked by agents looking for an edge in the transfer market.

Here, in Tubize, one can see the fault lines between the simple past and the complex present, between what soccer has always been and what it threatens to become. Tubize is now owned by a South Korean marketing firm. Its visitor on opening day, K.S.V. Roeselare, is backed by Chinese money. Of their six rivals in the Belgian second division, four are the playthings of foreign investors: the Thai owners of Leicester City, the Russian billionaire who has bankrolled A.S. Monaco, a German entrepreneur and a wealthy Egyptian who now backs three separate clubs in Africa and Europe.

In Belgium’s top division, the Jupiler League, there are clubs owned by representatives of Qatar and Malaysia, and another with close links to Pini Zahavi, one of the most powerful agents in the game. All of them are now invested, to varying degrees, in Belgian soccer.

It has all left many here asking one question: Why?

Foreign Exchange

A couple of hours after Roeselare’s match at Tubize, on the other side of Brussels, the clouds burst over the pretty university town of Leuven. The downpour lasts only a few minutes, but it is intense enough to drench almost everybody at Den Dreef, Leuven’s home stadium, and it means that for the first half-hour of Leuven’s game with Lierse, the ball spends much of its time coming to rest in puddles.

It is hard not to feel sorry for John Ledwidge, Leicester City’s groundsman, and his team. They have spent much of the summer making sure the field is in pristine condition, and now one storm has undone much of their hard work.

Ledwidge’s expertise is just one of the benefits provided to Leuven by its new owners, Thailand’s King Power group. Also the owners of Leicester, King Power confirmed in May that it had completed a deal to take control of Leuven, and it has taken a hands-on approach, setting out not just to improve the quality of the playing field but also the squad (a flurry of new players arrived this summer) and the stadium itself (now known as the King Power at Den Dreef). The plan, initially, is to win promotion. “We will have to wait and see,” said Marc van Eylen, a member of the Louvaniste fan group, but even he admits to hopes that King Power can “do the same as they did at Leicester.”

King Power is merely the latest foreign investor to decide a Belgian second division team is the must-have accessory, following in the footsteps of Sportizen (South Korea, Tubize), Wadi Degla (Egypt, Lierse), Xiu Li Hawken (China, Roeselare), Monaco’s owner Dmitri Rybolovlev (Russia, Cercle Brugge) and Jurgen Baatzsch (Germany, Royal Union St.-Gilloise). In the Jupiler League, there is the Aspire Academy (Qatar, KAS Eupen), Vincent Tan (Malaysia, K.V. Kortrijk) and the case of Zahavi, and a couple of Maltese companies, at Royal Excel Mouscron.

It is a remarkable concentration of international investment in a league hardly noted for its glamour. There is no chance to profit from lucrative television rights deals in Belgium; there is no opportunity to accrue the sort of soft power that attracted the likes of Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour to Chelsea and Manchester City of the Premier League. These clubs are a world away from the bright lights of the Champions League.

What has drawn the investors here is different. They have all come with different plans and purposes, different ideas of what their team might be. But there is one common thread for why they have all come: Belgium, perhaps unknowingly, offers the perfect climate to nurture a vision of what soccer’s future might look like.

Take Lierse, as one example. Matthias Hendrix can still reel through the names of Lierse’s team from 20 years ago: Bob Peeters and Eric van Meir and Stanley Menzo. To Hendrix, a lifelong fan, that 1997 side is special: It was the team, largely homegrown, almost entirely unheralded, that last made Lierse the champion of Belgium.

By 2007, though, the club was in dire straits. The Bosman ruling that let players freely leave at the end of their contracts had broken up that team long before then, and denied Lierse the chance to collect fat fees for their transfers. A match-fixing scandal uncovered in 2006 plunged the team deeper into chaos.

That year, the Egyptian businessman Maged Samy was looking for a European club to buy. He had considered Fortuna Sittard, across the border in the Netherlands, and Royal Antwerp, but Lierse’s desperation made it an appetizing prospect. “Belgian clubs are quite cheap,” Hendrix said. “Lierse was in trouble. It was an easy target.”

That so many smaller Belgian clubs are available for comparatively small sums is only one of the reasons that outside investors have flocked here. Pierre François, the general director of the organization that oversees Belgium’s domestic competitions, the Pro League, can offer three others off the top of his head. First, there is the “good image” created by the success of the national team in recent years, and the strong reputation the country has for youth development. This is a place where larger, richer clubs from England, Germany and France habitually shop for players.

Then there is the fact that there are “very few restrictions on players,” François said. Only eight players on each squad of 25 has to be homegrown, meaning teams can import huge numbers of foreigners. Even more enticingly, for players from outside the European Union, Belgium offers a fast track to European citizenship, making it an ideal port of call for African players in particular.

And finally, there are the low costs. In the Netherlands, any team planning on registering a non-E.U. player must pay him at least 300,000 euros a year (over $ 360,000). In Belgium, it is just “€80,000 or €90,000, including bonuses,” François said. There are the tax breaks, too: François pointed out that when a club is sold, the profit is not taxed under Belgian law.

All of that, though, only answers part of the question. It might explain why Belgium is so attractive, but it does not clarify the motivations of the country’s new investors.

Reality Show

“In South Korea, Tubize is the second-best-known city in Belgium,” Shim Chan-koo said proudly, staring out from the media suite at the Stade Leburton. “First is Brussels, but after that it is Tubize, and that is all thanks to the TV show.”

Shim, through his firm Sportizen, bought Tubize three years ago; he currently serves as the club’s chairman and chief executive. His aim when he arrived, he said, was to build a bridge between Europe and Asia: His club would give young Korean, Japanese and Chinese prospects a platform on which to perform in Europe. In return, Korean soccer would benefit from the methods, particularly in marketing, he found in Europe.

And he hoped to advertise his plan through a television show.

“In 2015, we made a show, similar to ‘America’s Got Talent,’ ” Shim said. “I collected many former players, who had played but not been able to make it as professionals, and brought them here.” He appointed Hwang Jin-sung, a former South Korean international, to coach them. Sixteen episodes aired on KBS, Korea’s national broadcaster.

Millions tuned in to watch; two years later, Tubize’s Korean Facebook page still has more than 10,000 followers. Tubize still has four South Korean players for them to track.

Shim’s ambition, however, is by no means standard among Belgium’s influx of foreign investors. Indeed, there is no standard. Monaco’s arrangement with Cercle Brugge, for example, is more straightforward: The French club wanted a place to help its young talents develop. Leuven’s fans expect something similar from the King Power group, which has arranged for several Thai players to join the team’s youth system. Some believe the owners’ plan is the same as the one that worked at Leicester: to win promotion, then compete in Europe.

Lierse, certainly, would advise Leuven fans to exercise caution. Hendrix remembers that Samy’s arrival in 2007 brought similar excitement. It soon soured. Now, he said, “it seems it is just an instrument to buy and sell players in order to make money.”

Samy had an arrangement with academies owned by Jean-Marc Guillou, a former French international turned productive producer of young players, and promised to deliver Lierse “10 new Romelu Lukakus.” They did not materialize.

“There is no stability in the team, and the quality of some of the players to have come has been really bad,” Hendrix said. Guillou’s prodigies have been favored over alumni of Lierse’s own, storied youth system, he said. There is now an open hostility between elements of Lierse’s fan base and its owner. Some, Hendrix said, are refusing to attend games until he leaves.

An Agent in Charge

Perhaps the most cautionary tale, though, is at first division Mouscron. Officially, since 2015, the club has been owned by two Maltese companies: Gol Football Limited, which paid €8.5 million (over $ 10 million) to rescue the club from bankruptcy in 2015, and Latimer International Limited, which bought it a year later — for €10. Both companies are connected to Pini Zahavi, the Israeli agent, and his son and nephew, Gil and Adar, sit on the Mouscron board.

Since Zahavi — together with a business associate, the German-Macedonian agent Fali Ramadani — became involved at Mouscron, eight players have arrived on loan from Apollon Limassol of Cyprus, another club where Zahavi has strong connections.

That has triggered concerns that the club is not being run for its own benefit, but for that of Zahavi, Ramadani and their clients, a place where they can showcase players in the hope of earning a move, or a base from which they can loan them out to other clubs — each time for a fee — in a bid to circumvent FIFA rules on agents’ owning the economic rights of players.

“Everyone knows what is going on at Mouscron,” one former club employee said. Gil Zahavi, an instructor in Modern Hebrew at Oxford University, did not respond to a request for comment. Pini Zahavi could not be reached.

François acknowledged his organization had to be “careful” to avoid another situation like Mouscron, which has been forced to make changes to its structure to obtain a license to compete in the Belgian league. Other league rules are being rewritten to ensure that “the ultimate beneficiary of a club is not an agent,” François said, no matter how many companies are set up to obscure ownership.

Under the new rules, he said, “Mouscron would not receive its license.”

The problem may soon, at first glance, be solved. A few days after Neymar’s record-breaking transfer to Paris St.-Germain was completed in August, a report emerged suggesting that the Paris club wanted to follow Monaco’s lead and buy a Belgian feeder team: Mouscron.

That might answer one question, but prompt another. Pini Zahavi, whom many presume to be the ultimate owner of Mouscron, and thus the one who would profit most from its sale to P.S.G., also happened to negotiate Neymar’s move to France.

Once again, it is in Belgium where the tectonic plates meet, where what soccer has become is in plain sight. These small towns, these small teams — places where nobody is really ready to rumble — find themselves caught in a free-for-all.

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