Having worked wonders on a budget in Belgium last season, SV Zulte Waregem have a chance to punch well above their weight in Europe when they meet PSV Eindhoven in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round.
The side formed in 2001 with the merger of Zultse VV and KSV Waregem came impressively close to taking the Belgian title last term, with RSC Anderlecht clinging on for victory when the sides drew 1-1 on the final day of the season. Fans back in Waregem nonetheless took to the streets to celebrate, with a green-and-red clad crowd giving the players a heroes' welcome when they returned home as the league's runners-up.
The club will now make their UEFA Champions League debut in Eindhoven with a tie against Dutch titans PSV, and coach Francky Dury is quietly optimistic. "We have a good pre-season behind us," he said. "We have to maintain the belief that we showed last season. If we are good, we can be competitive. Last season we proved that any team can be beaten. When you have a good side and play without fear, anything is possible."
Dury has form when it comes to doing great things with Zulte Waregem. The 55-year-old coached them from their inception, leading them from the third tier into the top flight, and taking them to the UEFA Europa League round of 32 in 2006/07 before leaving for KAA Gent in 2009. He returned in December 2011, and has fashioned a new side with an accent on player development, with Chelsea FC loanee Thorgan Hazard among the main beneficiaries.
The 20-year-old younger sibling of Blues midfielder Eden Hazard was among the stars at the Regenboog Stadium last season, and has agreed to spend the current campaign with Zulte Waregem too. "There were talks with Genk and Anderlecht, but this is the best way to develop for another season," he said. "The club believed in me last season when I was just 'the brother of …' and I am sure we can do even better if we play with the same élan in the new season."
Hazard showed his class in his first outing of the new league campaign, with a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win at K. Lierse SK, and Dury – whose budget for the season is reportedly just €9m – knows how much the midfielder's skills could be worth, saying of Hazard's decision to stay: "This is a big moment in the development of this talented player, but also a big moment for Zulte Waregem."
Not a big enough decision to swing the odds in the tie against PSV in their favour, maybe, but Dury knows from experience that underdogs – however small – can always have their day.