Conceding a goal in minute 2 of the match did not dampen Royale Union Saint-Gilloise’s hopes of seeing a dream come true: reaching the Europa League semi-final for the first time in more than half a century. “Ici, ici, c’est Saint Gilles”, the audience began to chant after Victor Boniface’s shot struck the crossbar of Bayer Leverkusen’s goal. The Union Saint-Gilloise had just scored the 1-3 that allowed their diverse fans to continue dreaming of continuing in the European competition after a draw in the first leg. But Xabi Alonso’s fourth put an end to that dream for the hundred-year-old club, which slipped into the UEFA competition after winning the regular season the previous year after being promoted from the second division.
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But this is not a sports Time.news but rather the story of how a team from a Belgian neighborhood has put a sprint in recent years that has allowed them to stand up to the country’s greats and measure themselves against other important clubs in Europe with a much smaller budget.
The origins of Union Saint-Gilloise are humble. It was founded in 1897 by a group of friends in the Belgian commune of Saint-Gilles, which in the middle of the last century was the neighborhood par excellence that welcomed Spanish and Italian emigrants who were looking for a better future in the north of the continent. The beginning of the team’s career was meteoric with promotion to the first division in the 1900-1901 season.
His path has been plagued with ups and downs and, after a decline in his performance in the following decades, in the early 1930s he was champion three times and did not know defeat in 60 consecutive games. However, World War II marked a before and after. While the clubs around them turned professional, Union-Saint Gilloise fell behind. The journey through the desert has lasted almost 80 years, with exceptions such as the semifinal dispute of the extinct Fairs Cup 58-60. On that occasion, the European dream was cut short against Birmingham.
The ultimate turning point came in 2018 at the hands of Tony Bloom, a professional poker player who added the club to his assets, including Premier League side Brighton & Hove Albion. After 48 years, Saint-Gilloise returned to the first division in 2021 and set a new record by winning the Belgian regular league against teams with much higher budgets. That was how he slipped into the European competition.
“Union SG has not stopped giving the bell this season in the Europa League, and they have done it again by standing up to Leverkusen and wresting a creditable draw in Germany. In general, the Belgian side have not found it difficult to score, as they have scored two or more goals in six of their last eight games in this competition. With the support of their fans, Karel Geraerts’ men hope to continue making history and keep their dream of going to the semi-finals alive”, summed up UEFA before the second leg played on Thursday.
Blue and yellow flooded the streets surrounding Lotto Park, the stadium of the Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht, the rival that had to cede the field for the matches of the European competition. And it is that, the conditions of the Joseph Marien, where La Roja played in the 1920 Olympics, do not meet the standards of UEFA, which requires that all attendees have a seat in the stands.
The bars in the area also welcomed the fans hours before the match. The music accompanied the party washed down with Jupiler beer, which is the one sponsored by the Belgian league, and fans of different ages – many young people – waited in orderly lines to buy hot dogs, hamburgers and fries. The club also made its August with the sale of merchandising of a historic meeting.
The Saint-Gilloise fans have also changed. It is no longer made up only of economic emigrants from the middle of the 20th century, but has welcomed a profile hipster who now lives in Saint Gilles and representatives of the so-called bubble from Brussels who have been encouraged to follow a team that has its own beer, 1897. For many, it is an opportunity to socialize. “It’s very home from home,” says one of the people who has gone to one of the second division games.
“Zero one”, hesitated a group of Anderlecht to the Union Saint Gilloise supporters who were crowding at the gate of the stadium when the game had just started. Moussa Diaby’s goal kept them away from the semifinal. The dream barely lasted a few more minutes and, shortly before the game ended, they began to leave the stadium towards the center of the capital. Union Saint Gilloise has a chance to make amends this Sunday, when the last game of the regular season is played before the play off.
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