When creativity, intelligence, and technique are listed as the attributes of a world-class Belgian footballer, Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bryune are the most likely names that come to mind. But take that question a bit further back in time to the last century and the focus can only be 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 and this is not the first time Belgium’s national team has been very good. The last time, like the present day, it featured a mercurial talent at the centre of the team and Scifo was that talent.
The Red Devils, as the national team is nicknamed, headed to the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 having already claimed a major scalp in qualifying: a Dutch team that boasted some of the generation’s best emerging players like Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. In the play-off for the finals, George Grun’s late header levelled the aggregate score and put Belgium through via the away goal rule.
Belgium made a slow start to the tournament. Facing the hosts in a replay of their 1970 encounter in which Mexico won by a single goal amidst a refereeing controversy, Belgium lost again. A 2-1 victory over Iraq and a 2-2 draw with Paraguay followed and 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 before losing out in the semi-finals to the Diego Maradona-led Argentina. Despite the loss, a semi-final berth was an excellent achievement for coach Guy Thys and his players.
And what fine players Belgium had with a squad that featured such luminaries as Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets and Jan Ceulemans; yet it was the 20-year old Enzo Scifo who emerged with the greatest prominence after winning the award for the Best Young Player of the Tournament. A World Cup semi-final in an 87,000 capacity stadium was a reality his doubts and childhood fears may never have permitted him to envisage. Scifo was born in 1966 to Italian immigrants in the 12th-century city of La Louviere. At the time children born to foreign parents often felt there was some diffidence by Belgians towards them. For people like Enzo it was felt would have to demonstrate extraordinary ability to stand out from the crowd and make it in the Belgian game.
Such feelings may have been reinforced when Enzo’s brother Giuseppe and close friends Salvatore Chiarelli and Silvino Marinelli all failed to make it at the local side, Louvieroise. Enzo also played there and his outcome was quite different – he joined the club as a seven-year-old and quickly garnered the nickname of ‘little Pelé’ as a consequence of his exceptional junior record in which he scored 432 goals in just four seasons. His reputation developed further still when he starred at a youth tournament in West Germany at the tender age of 15.
Clubs started taking notice of his qualities and Anderlecht was the first to make a move, signing him up on the recommendation of their former captain, Jef Jurion. 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.”
Enzo’s father Agostini had migrated to Belgium from Aragona, a small town in Sicily and worked in a mine. The family was poor and his family’s hardships fuelled Enzo’s drive to make a fine career for himself.
“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.”
Homesickness would affect his early days greatly and Anderlecht agreed to let him commute to Brussels from his home base in the south western part of Belgium. His father drove him until Enzo himself passed his test. There were also coaching issues, but once Paul Van Himst replaced Tomislav Ivić then Scifo’s career was ready to take off. After two brief appearances in the early part of the season, Enzo made his first league start on the 17th December 1983 at the age of 17, scoring an equaliser that sparked a comeback 4-1 victory for his side.
A handful of games for Anderlecht was all it took for the rest of Europe to notice his talent. Franco Previtalu, the general manager of Serie B’s Atalanta, remarked after going to watch Scifo in Belgium:
“He reminded me so much of Gianni Rivera – with greater potential. A star in the making.”
By the end of the season Scifo had made 25 appearances and scored five goals, though Anderlecht missed out on the title finishing second to KSK Beveren. Great strides were made in the UEFA Cup however and as the defending champions, Anderlecht had a chance to retain the trophy when they reached the final again in 1984.
En route to that final they overcame a 2-0 first-leg defeat away to Nottingham Forest by winning the return fixture 3-0, but amidst considerable controversy. Anderlecht were awarded a dubious penalty and the English side was 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 had started the recovery against Forest, a detail lost in time with this tainted victory. Tottenham Hotspur won the final on penalty kicks which probably brought some justice.
Scifo’s burgeoning reputation attracted the attention of clubs from his father’s homeland of Italy with Internazionale, in particular, showing considerable interest. Given the speculation, Anderlecht hatched a plan with cooperation from the Belgian FA to ensure their most prized asset remained in the country. It was a plan that worked well for both club and country. Scifo announced he would sign a new contract and seek Belgian citizenship, a process the federation was happy to expedite so he could play at the European Championships of 1984. This move dimmed interest from Italy as Scifo’s new status as a Belgian national meant that signing him would now require him to be allocated one of the prized import slots.
Belgium went into the 1984 tournament on the back of the Standard Liege-Waterschei match-fixing scandal. The fallout and the bans decimated the team of its best defensive options, but the midfield options were impressive and alongside Scifo were fine players like Franky Vercauteren, Rene Vandereycken and Jan Ceulemans. It wasn’t enough to get them past the group stages, however.
Back at Anderlecht the year leading up to the 1986 World Cup had been challenging and disappointing. After signing his new contract, Scifo stayed at Anderlecht for a further three seasons and won the league title in each of them contributing 27 goals in 94 appearances. In 1987 Internazionale finally decided to make a definitive move having never lost their interest in the midfielder. It was a move that just didn’t work out though and after just a single season in Serie A, the Belgian was on his travels again with Bordeaux offering him the chance to revitalise his career in France.
That transfer also failed to spark as injuries and conflicts with senior players caused trouble and led to him leaving again after a single season. Scifo’s career was now in serious doubt after such a promising beginning. Next he would move on to fellow Ligue 1 side Auxerre. Guy Roux was the long-serving manager of the club at the time and had a talent for getting the best out of young players – Eric Cantona, Basile Boli and Djibril Cissé number among his many successes. If there was anyone who could rejuvenate Scifo, it was Roux.
At various times during the midfielder’s career he was described as not having the ability nor willingness to demonstrate strong mentality. In Guy Roux, Scifo found the man, the motivator, the father-figure who would help him and it was a marriage made in heaven. Scifo’s debut season there was a great success and he scored 11 times in 33 games to help his side finish in a fine sixth place in the league. His efforts were recognised with the award for the league’s best foreign player.
Scifo finally finding a suitable home for his talents also benefited his country greatly as it needed the star playmaker to be in the best possible form in the lead up to the World Cup in Italy. Belgium approached the competition in confident spirits and wins against South Korea and Uruguay set them up for a second-round clash against England. Scifo had scored just a single goal by that stage, but his flair and individual quality was key in facilitating Belgium’s progress.
The tie with England was billed as a clash between the two finest playmakers of the tournament to that point: Scifo and Chris Waddle. Ultimately it was David Platt who stole the show with his late goal to eliminate the Red Devils. Things may have been different had luck been on Belgium’s side; they were the better side and Scifo came very close with a fine shot that struck woodwork.
Back at club level, Scifo’s second season under Roux brought 14 goals from midfield and a third-place Ligue 1 finish earning qualification for the UEFA Cup. He moved back to Italy to join Torino the following season and vanquished the demons of his disappointing past experience there. Two strong seasons brought highlights of a UEFA Cup Final appearance in 1992 and a Coppa Italia win the following season.
Arsène Wenger’s Monaco tempted him back to France in 1993 where more success, including a Ligue 1 title, was forthcoming. His career wound down when he made a return to Anderlecht then finally a spell with Charleroi. He continued to represent his country and appeared at the 1994 and 1998 World Cups, though those tournaments failed to produce much of note for a national side that was in a period of decline.
His technique, dribbling ability, aptitude for long-range shooting and general eye for goal stood comparison with virtually any of his footballing peers during his career. Scifo’s was a career that many felt wouldn’t have reached the heights it did after his struggles to establish himself and find his natural game in the years immediately after he moved on from Anderlecht, but much credit is due for the manner in which he revitalised his career in France and Italy to earn the right to regard himself as one of his country’s finest-ever players.