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Belgium still bows to Van Himst

Paul Van Himst was the star of RSC Anderlecht's 1960s team and Belgium's record scorer, and later served both club and country as coach.

Paul Van Himst in his prime
Paul Van Himst in his prime ©Getty Images

To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Belgium chose Paul Van Himst as their Golden Player.

An elegant footballer who was famed for his excellent technical skills, Paul Van Himst was selected as Belgium's player of the last 50 years in 2004 – due recognition for a career littered with prizes.

Striker Van Himst won eight Belgian league titles with RSC Anderlecht from 1962-74 and four Belgian Cups. In addition, he was the league's top scorer on three occasions and collected four Belgian Player of the Year awards – in 1960, 1961, 1965 and 1974.

"I am glad others voted for me," Van Himst told UEFA.com. "I think there were two main reasons. First, my career – all those trophies and awards were not a coincidence. Then, my behaviour – a sportsman, especially a great one, must be an example to all. Sportsmanship is very important. In sport, you have to be able to handle losing."

Van Himst remains Belgium's record goalscorer alongside Bernard Voorhoof, having found the net 30 times in 81 internationals. He made his debut at the age of 17 in 1960 and helped his country to third place at the 1972 UEFA European Championship, yet Van Himst admitted it was difficult to single out one highlight from his glittering career. "All my achievements made my career what it was," he said. "In fact, everything together – the titles and Golden Shoes – gives me huge satisfaction. In addition, with Belgium at that time, I think we achieved all we could."

Nicknamed the 'White Pelé' in his pomp, Van Himst actually appeared alongside the original one in the 1981 Hollywood film Escape to Victory after his playing career had been ended by a knee injury. He subsequently returned to Anderlecht as coach and led his former club to successive UEFA Cup finals in 1983 and 1984 – winning the first against SL Benfica – and another league title in 1985. He then took over as Belgium coach in 1991 and guided them to the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

However, it was not all plain sailing for Van Himst, as he revealed, saying: "Of course I have regrets. In 1970, Anderlecht reached the final of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and won 3-1 at home against Arsenal [FC], although it should have been 5-1 or even 6-1. Then we lost 3-0 away. But our elimination from the 1970 World Cup was even harder. We were knocked out in the first round and I was blamed. Of course, a high tree catches a lot of wind, and you have to accept the bad with the good, but that was the toughest period in my career."

It was a mark of Van Himst's character that he bounced back from that double disappointment. His tally of 30 international goals seems unlikely to be overtaken in the near future, although the man himself is unconcerned. "Reaching 30 goals is a very tough task," he said. "But records are there to be broken. I do not think about that record because it is only natural that one day it will be broken."

Indeed, it is not just his playing achievements which provide satisfaction for Van Himst, today an ambassador for the Born In Africa NGO and still a regular presence at Anderlecht's home matches. Reflecting on his coaching days, he said: "I can be satisfied with two European finals – one won – a national title and a World Cup tournament. You have coaches who will not achieve that much in 100 years."

Last updated: 21 January 2011