BY PETER MILES
Football rivalries are endemic across the globe but rarely has a rivalry been so ingrained into a city’s psyche that it transcended from the football field to the theatre stage. Such was the rivalry between the two great adversaries from Brussels – Union St.Gilloise and Daring Club – that in 1938 a play called “Bossemans et Coppenolle” was written by Paul van Stalle and Joris D’Hanswyck; it was first performed publically on February 25th of that year. The eponymous characters are friends but support the rival clubs, Bossemans being the Union fan and Coppenolle the fan of Daring Club. Immediately the populace of Brussels took the play to their hearts due to its close evocation of “Brusseleer” and life in Brussels. Indeed, in an exceptional case of cultural longevity, the play, written in true Vaudeville style, has long outlasted the rivalry of the two clubs.
To give the play context one must go back to the 1930’s when Union St.Gilloise and Daring Club were two of the biggest clubs in Belgium with both being noted for their partisan and fanatical support. They would both regularly win the Belgian championship in what was very much the heyday for both clubs before the outbreak of World War II.
Union St.Gilloise had been formed in 1897, two years after Daring Club de Bruxelles who were based in the west of the city in Molenbeek St.Jean. However, the initial force in the city was Racing Club de Bruxelles who won the Belgian championship for the first time in 1897, its third season, and went on to claim five more titles between then and 1908. However, Union and Daring both usurped Racing in terms of popularity and matches between the two clubs were fiercely contested and eagerly anticipated. The rivalry really escalated around 1920 when both clubs moved into new stadiums. Union had moved into their current ground, Stade Joseph Marien, in 1920 which had been opened the year before in preparation for the Brussels Olympic Games. The club had previously played in various grounds around the St.Gilles area of the city, notably La Cambre next to the velodrome. Daring Club had started life playing in Koekelberg, adjacent to the large basilica before moving to a new ground in Jette. This also proved to be too small for their burgeoning support and in 1920 the club opened their new ground in Molenbeek, the Stade du Daring. The ground still exists, although totally rebuilt, and is now known as the Edmond Machtens Stadium, a World War I memorial is the sole evidence of Daring’s tenure at the venue.
The rivalry was always intense, but never violent, and tradition had it on derby day that the away team would walk the five miles between the two grounds and stop for a drink at every hostelry en route. In 1926, the Belgian F.A. set up their famous “matricule” system which meant registered clubs were awarded a “stamnummer” based on their history; the idea being to stop defections to other associations. The rule was that once a matricule had been awarded it could not be transferred if a club folded or merged. Daring Club were awarded the matricule of 2 (Royal Antwerp have number 1) while Union were given number 10. Matricules are treasured throughout Belgium as a sign of longevity and history.
After a brief interlude where provincial clubs won the championship, the 1930’s signified a return to dominance of the two great Brussels rivals. Between January 1933 and February 1935, Union went undefeated for 60 matches winning three more titles and increasing their tally to eleven championships. The epic run came to an end on February 10th 1935 when Daring won the derby by two goals to nil at their home ground. Daring would win the next two championships taking their own tally to six. Sadly, the success of 1937 for Daring was to be the last for either club, but prompted the production of “Bossemans et Coppenolle” the following year.
Aside from the lead characters, the play features an old lady called Amélie Van Beneden better known as “Madame Chapeau” which is typically played by a male actor. The character is portrayed as possessing the cheeky humour associated with Brussels known as “zwanze”, notable for its largesse, self deprecation and exaggeration. So revered is the Madame Chapeau character that there is a representation of her in bronze on the Rue du Midi in the city.
The play became so popular, playing to packed houses, that later in 1938 a film version was directed by Gaston Schoukens and incorporated scenes filmed at a live Gilloise versus Daring match. The big screen adaptation starred Victor Guyau (Bossemans), Marcel Roels (Coppenolle) and Georges Etienne (Madame Chapeau)
Sadly, both clubs fell into the doldrums, Union falling down the divisions as low as the fourth tier while Daring Club had to merge with another club to survive. In 1973, Daring combined with Racing White from Woluwe to form Racing White Daring of Molenbeek. Initially the union was successful, RWDM won the 1974/75 championship, but by 2002 the merged club was in severe trouble and folded after being refused a professional licence. Only in season 1984/85 did the two great rivals met again in league competition, both games attracting over 20,000 people. Nowadays, Union St.Gilloise are in the Third Division while a club called FC Strombeek briefly rebranded themselves as RWDM Brussels, but themselves folded at the end of the 2013/14 season.
While the Union and Daring rivalry is no more, the play spawned out of it continues to flourish into its ninth decade and a new adaptation of Bossemans et Coppenolle runs at the Théâtre Royal des Galeries in Brussels from April 2015. The play about a football rivalry remains one of the most famous pieces of Belgian literature.
(with grateful thanks to Stéphane Lievens)