When creativity, intelligence, and technique are listed as the attributes of a world-class Belgian footballer, Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bryune are the likely names your brain will serve you. But introduce the fact that the player in question was a star in the 20th century and the focus is zoomed in on one man: Vicenzo Daniele Scifo or simply, Enzo Scifo.
There is nothing new under the sun, it is said. Things that happened years ago find interesting ways of repeating themselves. This is not the first time the Belgians have been very good. That time, like the present day, they had a mercurial talent at the centre of the team. Scifo was that talent.
The Red Devils, the Belgian national team, headed for the World Cup in 1986 having already claimed a major scalp. They went to Mexico at the expense of a Netherlands team that boasted some of the generation’s best players: Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, and Marco van Basten. In the play-off for the finals, George Grun’s late header halved the Belgians’ deficit in the return leg in Rotterdam to progress on the away goal rule.
The Belgians had a slow start to the competition. They faced the hosts in a replay of their match in 1970 World Cup. That match, marred by refereeing controversy, ended in 1-0 victory for the Mexicans. The Central Americans defeated the Belgians again in 1986. A 2-1 victory over Iraq and a 2-2 draw with Paraguay followed their opening day loss. The Belgians were beneficiaries of the reprieve a 24-team format grants third-placed teams.
They overcame much-fancied USSR and Spain in the round of 16 and quarter-finals respectively. USSR had topped a group containing then-European Champions, France. Spain had trounced a good Danish team on their way to their quarter-final clash. They lost the semi-finals to the Diego Maradona-led Argentina. Despite the loss, a semi-final berth was surprising achievement for coach Guy Thys’ men.
Blessed with excellent players like Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets and Jan Ceulemans, it was a 20-year old Enzo Scifo who emerged with the greatest prominence after winning the award for the Best Young Player of the Tournament. He scored two goals in the finals.
A World Cup semi-final in an 87,000 capacity stadium was a reality his doubts and childhood fears may not have permitted him to envisage. Scifo was born to Italian immigrants in 1966 in the 12th-century city of La Louviere. At the time, kids born to foreign parents felt there was some diffidence by some Belgians towards them. For people like Enzo, it was felt had to demonstrate extraordinary ability to stand to make it in football in Belgium.
Such feelings may have strengthened when Enzo’s brother, Giuseppe and close friends Salvatore Chiarelli and Silvino Marinelli failed to make it. All of them played in the local side, Louvieroise.
Enzo Scifo also played in Louvieroise and made it – clearly, his background did not hinder him. He joined the club when he was seven-years-old and garnered the nickname of the ‘little Pelé’, coming as a consequence of his exceptional record which saw him score 432 goals in four seasons. He picked up prominence at an early age and was the star of a youth tournament in West Germany at the tender age of 15.
Clubs started taking notice of his qualities and Anderlecht were the first to make a move, signing him up on the recommendation of their former captain, Jef Jurion – a man with great football knowledge, but with a tainted reputation of bribery scandals. To the Anderlecht board, Jurion said of Scifo:
“We have a remarkable little teenager coming through. His name is Enzo Scifo and though he’s not much bigger than a blade of grass he has a great natural talent.”
It was self-evident of Enzo’s desire to forge a career more enjoyable and totally different from his father’s, and that vision was well on course. His father, Agostini, had migrated from Aragona, a small town in Sicily to Belgium, where he was working in a mine. His goal was clear, and his family’s hardships fuelled him.
“I soon realised that football was about the only talent I had which offered a better life than that of my father. I used to see him come home from the mine every night and he’d tell us about his day and about what sounded like hell-the mud, the dirt, the danger, and working on your knees buried away from the sun and the sky.”
Scifo craved a career under bright skies and in the sun, but before all that, there was darkness. Homesickness would affect him greatly and Anderlecht would agree to let him commute from the South Western part of Belgium, where he was based, daily. His father drove him on that journey until Enzo himself was allowed to drive.
Along with that, there were also coaching issues, but after Paul Van Himst replaced Tomislav Ivić, Scifo’s career was ready for a belated lift-off. After two brief appearances in the early part of the season, he made his first league start on 17 December 1983 at the age of 17, where he scored an equaliser that sparked a comeback 4-1 victory.
A few games for Anderlecht was all it took for the rest of Europe to notice his talent. Franco Previtalu, the general manager of Atalanta, then a second-division Italian side, remarked after going to watch Scifo in Belgium: “He reminded me so much of Gianni Rivera – with greater potential. A star in the making.”
At the end of the season, Scifo’s five goals in 25 league matches were not enough to help his club win the league title – they finished second to KSK Beveren. They had, however, made good strides in the UEFA Cup. Being the defending champions, they had a chance for a double by reaching the final.
On their way to the final, they overcame a 2-0 first-leg defeat away to Nottingham Forest. They won the return fixture 3-0, but not without controversy. Anderlecht were awarded a dubious penalty and the English were denied a goal that would certainly have seen them qualify for the final. Thirteen years later, it would be revealed that the Anderlecht chairman paid a bribe of £27,000 to the referee.
Scifo’s goal started the recovery and completed the comeback, but this was a tainted victory. In the final, it was Tottenham Hotspur, who had the likes of Ray Clemence, Glenn Hoddle, Garth Crooks, and Ossie Ardiles, who would take the spoils.
Scifo’s growing reputation attracted the attention of Italian clubs. Inter Milan, in particular, paid great attention and the player was a subject of many headlines in his father’s homeland. Given the speculation, Anderlecht sewed up a plan with cooperation from the Belgian FA to ensure their most prized prospect remains in the country.
That worked out well for both club and country. Rumours of his departure were immediately squashed and in a television interview, he announced he would be signing a new contract and seek Belgian citizenship. The FA agreed and sped up the process to ensure Scifo gets to play in the European Championships of 1984..
Belgium went into the tournament on the back of the Standard Liege-Waterschei match-fixing scandal. The case decimated the team of fine defensive options, who received bans. Their midfield was impressive, nonetheless, and alongside Scifo, had the likes of Franky Vercauteren, Rene Vandereycken, and Jan Cuelemans. Despite that, the scandal hit them hard and they failed to make it past the group stages.
Scifo had mixed fortunes in international competitions. After the Euros of 1984, the World Cup in 1986 was great and they exceeded expectations by making the last four. In 1990, they only made the second round but could take pride in their displays.
Back at Anderlecht, the years prior to the 1986 World Cup had been challenging and disappointing. After signing his new contract, Scifo stayed at Anderlecht for a further three seasons, winning the league title in each of them. He also scored 27 goals in 94 appearances in the league.
In 1987, Inter Milan finally decided to make their move, having been impressed by Scifo and also having received requests to sign the player. However, that move turned out to be sour and after just one year, the Belgian was on his travels once again. A lack of game time had left him frustrated, and Bordeaux offered him the chance to revitalise in France.
That transfer also failed to produce much of note. This time, injuries and conflicts with senior players caused him trouble and he would leave after a year. Just like many young players, Scifo’s career was in serious doubt after a solid start. Now, he would go to Auxerre.
Auxerre is the biggest city in France’s Burgundy region with a passionate and the pressure was immense. Guy Roux was the manager of the club at the time and that association with Auxerre would prove to be a long one. Roux had a knack for working with young players, having trained the likes of Eric Cantona, Basile Boli, and Djibril Cissé. If there was anyone who could rejuvenate Scifo, it was Roux.
The manager was a father figure – determined, knowledgeable and having vast confidence in his abilities. To top it up, he did not shy from hard work. This was exactly who Scifo needed. Oftentimes during Scifo’s career, he was described as not having the willingness to show a strong mentality. In Guy Roux, Scifo had just the man to help him.
The Belgian’s first season was a success. He scored 11 times in 33 games and the club finished sixth in the league. At the end of the season, he even bagged the award for the league’s best foreign player, proving that he made the right move. This also benefited his country greatly as they needed their star man to be in good form prior to the World Cup in Italy.
When Belgium reached Italy, they were confident. Two wins against South Korea and Uruguay set them up for a second-round clash against England. Scifo scored just one goal in that tournament until then, but his flair and individual quality facilitated Belgium’s progress in the tournament.
The tie with England was billed as a clash between the two finest playmakers of the tournament until that point: Scifo and Chris Waddle. In the end, though, it was David Platt who stole the show with his goal, thus, eliminating the Red Devils. Things may have been different had luck been on Belgium’s side, with Scifo once hitting the woodwork.
Back at club level, Scifo’s second season under Roux yielded 14 goals and a third-place finish with qualification for the UEFA Cup. He moved back to Italy following that season, this time joining Torino, where he finished the demons of his past and put in another season of goals, trophies in the form of the Coppa Italia and qualification for the UEFA Cup.
That spell in Turin lasted just two seasons, though, as Monaco and Arsène Wenger tempted him in returning to France. He would do well there too – even going on to win the league title – before returning to Anderlecht and Charleroi in Belgium to end his career. He even represented his country at the 1994 and 1998, but those tournaments failed to produce any fireworks.
Scifo’s was a career that many felt wouldn’t have wound up in the way it did considering he had serious trouble after leaving Anderlecht, but his short spells in France and Italy revitalised him and earned him a status as one of his country’s finest-ever players.
His technique and dribbling ability drew comparison to some of the greats of the game and also in his arsenal were excellent long-range strikes that saw him score many great goals. For someone with a relatively smaller build, his heading ability, too, was impressive.
After his playing days, he went into coaching and although that hasn’t been quite as fruitful, his legacy in Belgian football is intact. A fine midfielder and a fighter, he goes down in history as one of the best.