Belgium – 2049/50 Open Thread
June 2049 – Nations League.
Our phones immediately start ringing off the hook, but none of the “projects” we’ve been pitched have caught our attention. Yet.
Mere days after Champions League triumph, we return to the field against ze Germans in the Nations League semifinals.
We utterly control the first half, but fail to make our chances count. Ze Germans stack men behind the ball and manage to snatch a goal on the counter in extra time, meaning we need to chase the tie. A late 2nd is a just reward for our ruthless opponents, who executed their gameplan to perfection, claiming a 2-nil win (aet).
It is our first non-shootout loss since March 2043, a run of 81 matches over the course of more than 6 years.
With the World Cup one year away, this serves as a timely reminder that no matter how good we may be, we are not invincible.
The 3rd place match against Italy is the very definition of a glorified friendly. Especially when the Italians set out defensively, looking to do little other that stymie our attack. A late goal from Hans De Boeck seals the match, followed by an assist from the diminutive Juventus man — crossing for Mangala to head home in the 91st. A 2-nil win, but not one I’ll look back on with any measure of fondness.
I’ve got other things on my mind, as the calls continue to pour in. One of which stands out from the rest.
The offer is everything we hoped for.
A strong club. With a rich history. A club that has been overshadowed, as of late, by a group of hipster upstarts from down the road. A club with potential. A youth academy brimming with prospects. Owners willing to give us a free hand, to build a side in our own image.
Owners who have but one request — that, in time, we usher in a new golden age. They want it done “right,” with an eye towards long-term success. Return the club to the pinnacle of domestic football. Build upon their recent Continental success.
I ask to have the room for a moment, to discuss things with Jesse and Zlatan.
I look to Jesse, but words need not be spoken. He nods. He’s all-in.
Turning to Zlatan, I arch an eyebrow. I can see he’s deep in thought.
A grin breaks across Zlatan’s face. “It’s a fairytale town, innit, Boss?!”
That it is.
That’s right, folks. Nicolaj, Zlatan and Jesse are taking a short drive down the road from the national team’s camp in Brussels, to take over at Club Brugge after the retirement of Gennaro Gattuso.
The demands are relatively straightforward — the only immediate target being a top-4 finish. This is a club with massive history — 30 Jupiler Pro League titles, the 2047 Europa League title under Ivan Perisic.
A constant presence in Europe, they’ve struggled to leave their mark on the Champions League in recent years.
Those years have witnessed the rise of a new Belgian power, OH Leuven, who have claimed 5 straight Jupiler Pro League titles under the guidance of Marcelo Gallardo, and finished as runners-up in the 2046/47 Champions League, losing to Frank Lampard’s Wolves in the final, 3-1.
My initial review of the squad leaves much to be desired. Our captain, Sergio Manoel, is years past his prime and on his way back to his native Brazil. Our vice-captain, Felix Leon, is promising, as is the mononymous Jose, arguably our best player. Our most promising youngster is 15 year-old Emiel Brackez…who I’m not convinced by, on first glance.
Frankly, I have only myself to blame for the absence of true world-class youngsters in the squad…because in July 2048, I bought their most promising prospect, Koby Piers ($16M), after having bought Samuel McNamara ($8.25M) in July 2047. Together, they comprised the mezzalas in Fiorentina’s 2nd XI last year — if they meet their potential, I think they will eventually step into the Belgian squad.
Our facilities are in tremendous shape, with some additional investment needed in our youth and training facilities, but otherwise ideal. As per usual, we will focus on youth recruitment and development.
We play at the Gert Verheyen Arena (aka the ‘Gert’), the third-largest stadium in the Jupiler Pro League, named for Brugge legend Gert Verheyen who, through sheer grit and determination, made more than 500 appearances (in all competitions) for the club over a 14-year period, scoring 195 goals.
One final thought — Belgium have been a wonderful country in the Nearly Men saves. In the FM17 version, the Belgian league became a powerhouse, with the likes of Zulte Waregem, Oostende and Antwerp joining the European elite. Not one-season wonders, mind you, as the Jupiler Pro League climbed the competitions table, disrupting the traditional powers-that-be in the most delightful fashion. The influx of cash and reputation served to super-charge the Belgian youth academies, churning out dozens of brilliant prospects each year. I’m hoping that my time at Club Brugge (and a later stint at OH Leuven, if Gallardo doesn’t take them to European glory) can launch a similar realignment in the FM20 edition.
But we’ve got work to do. A more thorough assessment of the squad is the priority, so that we can identify our immediate transfer targets. (Piers is available on loan, and at the top of my list.)
There’s something welcoming about Belgium…not just because we feel at home after managing the national side for the past 7 years. Less money. More heart.
The Class of ’92 have lost their minds with our departure, hiring Aleksandar Dragovic of all people. That 46% career win percentage is stunning, no doubt.
We’ve been busy in the transfer market, as few players failed to impress. Zlatan felt personally attacked. In the end, we shipped a large number of players out the door, with 8 signings and several promotions from the youth ranks.
First in the door? Issifu Dauda ($1.5M, Asante Kotoko) a Ghanaian youth international who will play in our 2nd XI as a mezzala.
I’d also had my eye on Meris Pavicevic ($6M, Cu**aricki), who looks the business — if he can grow into that potential, he’s certainly capable of leading a Champions League-winning side.
Adnan Alibabic ($6.25, Napredak) is in the same mold. If he was taller, he’d be our starting libero. As it is, he’s our roaming playmaker of the future, and will take over for Mate Vidovic in due course.
Kevin “El Patrón” Garcia ($2M Atletico Nacional) looks like he’s going to be in our 1st XI sooner rather than later, paired with Flavio Rojas, since Joakim Holmen has thrown his toys out of the pram because I rejected a move to Bournemouth. The Zlatan tried to talk some sense into his countryman, but Joakim wasn’t having it. “Have you ever been to Bournemouth, Joak-lad? Trust your Zlatan, is no bueno. Many petting files.”
The centerbacks are rounded out with the promotion of Ioannis Lefevre, a player the club stole from OH Leuven a few years back. Yeah, I get it. Zlatan can’t pronounce his name, either. The other promotions from within are Abdulah Mesinovic and Lucas Boen. Lefevre and Mesinovic are in our 2nd XI, Boen is on the bench for the 2nd XI at the moment.
Sabelo Mntambo ($950k, Mamelodi Sundowns) is another mezzala, who looks the business, if he can approach that potential. He’s in our 2nd XI for now, but I expect he and Daufa to move up and eventually replace Jimmy Boonen and Benjamin Matteoli.
In searching for a potential libero, I knew I wanted someone who could push forward and be effective in the final third — not just a ball-playing defender. While he isn’t as extreme as some players I’ve used, Turkish youth international Osman Karatas ($6.5M, Basaksehir) fits the bill perfectly. Martin Gomez is our current starter, but he’s not long for the club at the age of 31.
Finally, Dayron Murillo ($1.8M, Deportivo Cali) may be our biggest signing. He’s going to be an absolute beast for us at left wingback, and will move into our 1st XI as soon as possible, taking over for Carlos Dos Santos. For $60k/week, I need much, much more than Carlos has to offer as a wingback.
We’re by no means done with our transfer business, but further moves will have to wait. The transfer window is all-but closed. And, while we have ample funds available given our net-spend to-date, we are not desperate. We failed to land several targets, but will go back in future windows for 1-2 of them.
On the pitch, we’re showing signs of early potential. We also received a favorable draw for the Europa League. Domestically, Gallardo’s OH Leuven are still the team to beat, though.
The early evening light filters in through the privacy screens which shade the therapist’s office. Turin is lovely this time of year.
Claus Bur sits on his wooden chair, tears in his eyes.
The therapist encourages him with banal, vague assurances of understanding.
Basking in a blissful lack of self-awareness, Claus continues on.
“It isn’t just my father, you know. All my life… My so-called mother… My so-called ‘mates.’ Did you know I was so unpopular in elementary school, that the crossing guards would lure me into traffic?!”
A wry, sad chuckle pours from the side of Claus’ mouth, his eyes fixed on the middle-distance, unseeing. Thinking back to the casual cruelty of youth, his breathing accelerates to the point of hyperventilating.
The therapist’s eyes roll. He’s been down this road before.
As the minutes pass, Claus’ eyes slowly focus. His breathing slows. The pain in his voice is overwrought. Unmistakable.
“Don’t just…sit there, Doctor. Please… Say something. I need… I… I don’t know.”
The silence stretches on. The therapist does not want to encourage Claus. He also hasn’t been listening very carefully, and isn’t entirely sure where Claus’ meandering has taken them today, to thus gauge an appropriate response.
Claus is insistent. Fixated. “Nothing?! That’s what you’ve got?! Say something, Doctor… For the… For the love of urCristiano!”
The words spring to the therapist’s mind reflexively. Without thought, they spill from his mouth in a careless whisper, barely audible even to to Claus. “Banana hammock…“
Word association of the most intimate kind.
The moment stretches out in a deep, awkward silence.
“Look at that… That’s… That’s our time for today, Claus…”
Claus looks at his wristwatch. There’s at least another 23 minutes left in their session. Nevertheless, he nods amiably and stands, shuffling towards the door, refusing to meet his therapist’s eye.
“See you next week, Doc.”
Suffice to say that I continue to enjoy my start to life in Belgium. We’re flying in the League, sitting a comfortable 2nd, one point off OH Leuven. The Europa League began with a trip to Greece, and in honor of Nicolaj’s Panathinaikos’ roots, we stomped them 3-nil behind what can only be described as intermittently ruthless finishing. (Whatever that means. I’m a little punchy over here…)
In our first Europa League match at the Gert, intermittent is the kindest possible phrase one could use to describe our finishing, though we secure a 2-1 win. 3 points are 3 points. Pretty doesn’t count. And it costs extra, anyways. We’ll take it.
On the international scene, we can all-but wrap up a trip to the 2050 World Cup over the next 2 weeks, after our September fixtures see us secure a draw away to Iceland, thanks to a late Benali strike, followed by a a 4-1 win over Austria. (I, for one, blame our poor finishing in Reykjavik on the hordes of women throwing themselves at the lads in our hotel. Should’ve known better than to ask Messrs. Foden and Greenwood to arrange for a demonstration of “local culture.”)
Our mission? Secure qualification for the World Cup. In style.
First up, Lithuania in Brussels. A 7-goal thriller for the home support, that will leave our guests walking bow-legged for a month.
Meaning that we traveled to Israel with a chance to secure qualification. After scoring in the first 15 seconds, we lost our heads for a few, and eventually spotted our gracious hosts no less than 3 goals. But we hit them for 4, so it all evens out in the end…although you might want to check my math on that.
14 goals in 2 matches…although only 11 for us. Qualification in the bag.
Start packing, lads, we’re going to Brazil.
When I look into Lech’s eyes, I can see a love restrained;
But when we went to Poland, don’t you know I feel the same.
Nothing lasts forever, and we both know tactics can change;
And it’s hard to go unbeaten, in the cold November Rain.
The whirlwind start to our new life in Belgium reaches the holiday break.
Manic. Triumphant. The only two words to describe these first few months, after the competitive matches began in July, coming fast and furious ever since.
There’s a beauty in reshaping a squad. While Club Brugge have been eclipsed domestically by the masses of tactical hipster ****s at OH Leuven, there’s no question that the pendulum is swinging back in our favor. Europa League champions in 2047, now ascendant in the league. We’ve taken a squad that was at the end of a cycle and infused fresh blood. Fresh ideas. Fresh… Fruit? I don’t know where to go with that.
I thought I was on a roll for a minute there. Back to the drawing board.
Because on the pitch I have no real complaints. We simply need time for the lads to finish acclimatizing to our system, and to assess our transfer targets for the January transfer window. In particular, we are in need of a backup libero — Martin Gomez‘s contract expires in June, but he is almost certain to leave during the January window.
Regardless, we sit atop the table in what is shaping up to be a two-club race for the title, having also won our Europa League Group and thus securing a bye into the Second Knockout Round.
The Belgians rolled on, concluding the qualifying campaign with a 2-nil win over Iceland, followed by a 4-nil thumping of Austria. (Zlatan likes to think that the latter win was fueled by his Arnold Schwarzenegger impression. Perhaps. But he really doesn’t give his Bjork cosplay from the prior match enough credit. It was epic, even if the vocals were pitchy.)
The World Cup draw has also landed, giving us Colombia and Congo in Group O. Big things are expected of the Belgians. We need to make it count this time.
Finally, Zlatan keeps talking about a new “golden generation” coming through, but I won’t hold my breath. It’s also hard to take him seriously when he’s wearing that swan dress, no matter how earnest his words may seem.
February 2050 — Transfer Updates.
Another year. Another busy transfer window. Much busier than I originally anticipated.
The reality being that some of these players were never going to make it. What goes us to where Club Brugge is today, won’t get us to where we’re going.
As soon as the sharks started circling around Martin Gomez, there was no question about his departure. 31 years old, with an expiring contract? There was no hesitation. Osman Karatas will take over as the libero in our 1st XI, with Guinean international Mamady Toure ($375k, Horoya AC) joining the 2nd XI.
Marco Bossio and Benjamin Matteoli also shipped out, although only the latter is a “loss” of any kind. Benny was a mezzala in our 1st XI, but Issifu Dauda will promote into the spot, with Lucas Boen stepping into the 2nd XI.
At wingback, we signed two youth internationals — Belgian Rutger Geerts ($14M, Oostende) and Dutchman Jorrit Willems ($4.2M, Zulte Waregem). Geerts will step directly into our 1st XI, replacing Hector who is off to Lyon. Willems will join our 2nd XI, replacing Carlos dos Santos who had the trifecta of being: (1) old; (2) on a high wage; and (3) completely useless in our tactics.
(Carlos wasn’t particularly happy to leave. He keeps texting, but I blocked him months ago because he wouldn’t stop sharing his Dave Matthews Band Spotify playlists. He just doesn’t take a hint, that Carlos. I assume that he’s just really enjoying Moscow in winter, and is eager to tell us about it.)
Mate Vidovic also left for Brighton. At the age of 32, on a high wage with 18 months left on his contract…I nearly snapped Brighton’s hand off when they came in for him. This allows Adnan Alibabic to promote into the 1st XI, which is ideal. Young Adnan is brilliant. He’s ready to feature as our roaming playmaker.
This is the calm before the storm. We’re getting ready for the Belgian league to split in April, and to learn who our opponent will be in the Europa League.
Full credit to Zulte — they’re the last Belgian team standing in the Champions League.
Over the course of 180 minutes, Leandro Bacuna’s Atletico were the better team. But that means nothing. We raced out to a three-goal lead in Madrid, holding off their furious comeback attempt in a massive 3-2 win. The second leg back at the Gert was a nevrey, hard-fought affair — we lost 1-nil on the night, but advance on away goals, 3-3.
We will face Ulisses Garcia’s Athletic in the quarterfinals, after the Basque’s eliminated Gallardo’s OH Leuven 3-2 (agg). There are no easy draws left.
We are not the only Belgian team left alive in Europe, though — Etienne Capoue’s Kiwi Farmers have reached the Europa Conference League quarterfinals, while Joaquin Correa’s Zulte Waregem face Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stuttgart in the Champions League quarterfinals.
Domestically, we’ve been on a bit of a wobble — I suspect it may have to do with our turnover in the January transfer window, which exchanged established players for raw potential. There was always going to be a trade-off. I have every confidence that, in the long run, we will be set.
Reinforcements are also on the way, with the arrival of our youth intake. Leander Mestdagh and Bilal Erdogan are the only players worth looking at, but both look like they could be something special. They’ll start training with the first team immediately, and likely begin to see minutes in our 2nd XI next year.
Finally, the Belgian’s curb-stomped the United States, 3-nil, in what is our last friendly before the squad gathers in June to prepare for Brazil 2050.
Zlatan couldn’t be bothered to pay attention. He knows all-too-well the “merits” of the Americans, such as they are (or aren’t), and spent the match drawing sketches for his forthcoming children’s book, A Dark And Stormy Night, in which Zlatan travels back in time to King Arthur’s court and slays dragons with a football. It’ll be an instant classic, I’m sure.
Zlatan’s post-match press conference after the 2nd leg was a thing of beauty, consisting solely of one quote, said slowy, his eyes matching those of the huddled media, before closing with a cheeky wink at an attractive female reporter. “Be not afraid of the greatness. Some are born great, like the Zlatan. Some achieve the greatness, like the Nicolaj. And others have the greatness thrust upon them.”
And like that, he was gone. Into the night. To celebrate with our supporters in Market Square, in the long shadow of the Belfry Tower. A 2-2 draw in the Basque Country, capped by a scoreless draw at the Gert.
We will face Tottenham in the semifinals, the first match less than 48 hours after the Croky Cup final kicks off against Gallardo’s OH Leuven. I’d complain, but no one would listen.
It all may come crashing down around us, but the dream lives on for now.
April 2050 — Europa League Semifinal, 1st Leg.
The tension is high.
We sit 5 points clear of OH Leuven in the league. And, in a gambit that may cause the end of our European run, we sent out the 1st XI in the Croky Cup final to our domestic rivals. We claimed a straightforward 2-1 win, but this is where the rubber meets the road.
In London, less than 48 hours later. Prioritizing the domestic campaign is a choice, the consequences of which we will have to accept. We’ve been rotating the XIs to address our fixture congestion, but not even that can save us from heavy legs at the first whistle.
It isn’t pretty, but we hold Spurs in the second half. Somehow, we will return to the Gert with a chance to progress. A 1-nil loss on the road is not the death knell I had feared.
May 2050 — Europa League Semifinal, 2nd Leg.
The 2nd XI secure a 1-nil win over Standard to keep us 5 points clear of Gallardo’s OH Leuven with 2 matches to play. We will face our hipster rivals on Matchday 37.
But first, our 1st XI must face Spurs at the Gert and overturn the one-goal deficit from the first leg. We’re much more well-rested this time around, but need a big performance. Zlatan’s pre-game talk was punctuated with an impressive impromptu karate demonstration, but even that might not be enough to drag us over the line.
In the 15th minute, we draw level as Vermeersch leads a blistering counterattack off of a Spurs corner, with Jose executing the coup de grace. We’re not dead yet.
Tottenham push forward with renewed vigor, but find themselves exposed — Murillo threading a through-ball for Vermeersch, who hits the seam at pace and buries it near-post. 2-nil on the night, in the 37th minute.
Dauda makes it 3 in the 61st, after Spurs fail to clear their lines, Geerts finding him open at the back post, 10 yards from goal. Spurs are falling to pieces…no gas left in the tank.
But out of nowhere, a desperate ball launched forward finds Eriksson free. He smashes it home. 3-1 on the night. A vital lifeline for Spurs, who are now one goal away from advancing to the final.
We revert to PM Haaientand, to solidify our defense. The tackles fly in, harder as each minute passes. When the 4th official announces that there will be 5 minutes added-on, the boos cascade from the terraces. Yet still we hold firm.
In the 96th minute, the whistle finally blows. We’ve done it. We’ve booked our tickets to the Emptyhad.
Matchday 37. In Heverlee. A chance to win the league for the first time since 2043/44. To break OH Leuven’s streak of 5 straight titles.
We sit 5 points clear. All we need is a draw to clinch the title. A domestic double.
In the first half, we are awful. We cannot even muster a shot, much less one on target. And we concede.
Meaning that unless something changes, we are staring down the barrel of an epic collapse as we travel to Zulte on the final Matchday.
But we rally, Zlatan shouts at the lads at halftime, ever the disappointed father, while I offer words of encouragement. We adjust, reverting to PM Haaienkonen and pushing our shadow strikers higher up the pitch. We dig deep. And the tide turns.
We begin to threaten. To create chances.
In the 75th minute, 17 year-old Meris Pavicevic finds the back of the net to draw us level. We are on the verge. We can feel the trophy in our grasp. And we do not let go. A 1-1 draw is all that we need.
We claim the trophy on our domestic rival’s home pitch. The domestic double is ours.
An immense first year at Club Brugge.
But there’s more to come. We face Inter in 18 days. 90 minutes. A shot at European glory.
May 2050 — Europa League Final.
We arrive in Manchester for what will be the club’s 5th European Cup final. A proud history. One that we did not expect to be adding to so quickly.
Which is exactly what we want.
We grow into the match as the first half progresses and are rewarded in the 45th minute, on the stroke of halftime, when the ball falls to Boonen 20 yards from goal on a corner — his first-time shot is unstoppable.
A balanced secon half follows, but we cannot find a response to Inter’s 65th minute strike.
We are left ruing our missed chances. Knowing that the match was there for the taking if we had been more ruthless.
May 2050 — Season Review.
A European final and a domestic double in our first year at Club Brugge. Far more than we were asked to deliver.
The hard work begins now. We’ve raised the bar. For ourselves. And for our domestic rivals. I have no doubt that they’ll work to raise their game to match us.
We are an incredibly young side. That has been put through a full squad overhaul in a short period of time. We should progress from strength to strength.
But we cannot focus on Club Brugge. Not yet.
The World Cup kicks off in 12 days. And Belgium have a point to prove.
Goals for 2050/51: Win the World Cup. Defend our Jupiler Pro League title. Make a run in the Champions League knockout rounds.
In the Champions League, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Aston Villa claimed their 2nd title in three years, in urCristiano’s maiden campaign at the helm. Their opponent? None other than Matthias Kaltenbach’s Stuttgart — the very club urCristiano left one year ago, who are now an eligible side. The match itself was dire — a 1-nil win for His Oiliness.
The Europa League is rather thoroughly covered above, as we lost 2-1 to Inter. A frustrating result, but we have to be pleased with the run we made with such a young squad.
In the Europa Conference League, Pablo Fornais’ Koln beat Etienne Capoue’s Kiwi Famers, 1-nil.
In the active leagues, Florian Martin’s Everton claimed the Premier League title. Julian Nagelsmann’s Juventus won their 7th straight Serie A title, as Aleksandar Dragovic’s Fiorentina drop to 6th. Baptiste Santamaria’s ‘ Gladbach won their 5th straight Bundesliga title. Ognjen Vranjes’ Sevilla won their 13th straight La Liga title. Weston McKennie’s Stade de Reims won their 2nd straight Ligue 1 title. Joris Chotard’s Panathinaikos won their 26th straight SuperLeague title. Thitiphan Puangjan’s Partizan won their 18th straight title. Finally, Malmo FF won the 2049 Allsvenskan title, their first since 2025.
If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry. The basic concept behind the Nearly Men save is explained here. Just need to catch up? Each installment in Nicolaj Bur’s story can be accessed through the Nearly Men Archive.
And if you just can’t get enough…join us for The Ballad of Toothless Bob, a series that explores the world of Nicolaj Bur, away from the pitch. What is Project Arcturus? What lies beyond the twisted redstone door, deep in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu?