After a roller-coaster of emotions over the past few weeks including disappointment, sadness, uncertainty, anger and relief, a sense of cautious optimism seems to have broken out among the supporters of Standard Liège. It has most certainly been a turbulent period, beginning with their narrow failure to beat Racing Genk to the league title although had they have won, it would have changed little in terms of the club’s future ownership.
There had been rumours since the New Year that vice-chairman Luciano D’Onofrio was seeking a way out of the club. What’s more, the majority shareholder, Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, was looking to sell up in order to fully focus her efforts on Olympique de Marseille. D’Onofrio, who held a minority stake, has been a hugely significant figure in the rejuvenation of the club and his future status quickly became the issue around which objections were raised to a potential takeover from Dutch investment group Value 8.
Of course, the thought of losing such an individual provoked some rather hostile reactions, as did the mere fact that Value 8 were foreigners. Would they really take into account the almost unique status of Standard in Belgium as the only major club in Wallonia? Did they have enough experience in sports management? Would Standard lose its identity? The fan groups were united around one common message. Standard must stay in Belgian hands and Luciano D’Onofrio must be allowed to continue his successful work. D’Onofrio himself was working on an alternative, involving Bernard Tapie and Flavio Briatore. And therein lies the irony.
The hero of many supporters, who appreciate the progress he has made with les Rouches, would have brought a lot of bad publicity to the club, which would have harmed its public image. Bernard Tapie is best known for being chairman of Marseille, at a time when they were stripped of their Ligue 1 title due to match-fixing and he would go on to spend time in prison. Flavio Briatore is a name who provokes strong reactions in the world of Formula 1 as he too was found guilty of race-fixing after instructing his second driver Nelson Piquet Jr. to crash on purpose. Given the current allegations against D’Onofrio, perhaps it was not a case of better the devil you know.
Fortunately – and to the surprise of everyone – a knight in shining armour arrived in the form of a third candidate, who succeeded in buying the club outright. Step forward Sint-Truiden owner Roland Duchâtelet, who forked out €41m to keep the club in Belgian hands. The initial reaction was one of total surprise because there had been no media speculation to suggest that such an outcome was possible. And then, one began to ask: What will happen with Sint-Truiden? Duchâtelet resigned from his role as chairman and gave himself six months to find a solution.
With the ownership finally settled, the club was in need of a new coach to succeed Dominique D’Onofrio, the brother of Luciano, who quit along with his assistant Sergio Conceiçao. There were several candidates such as Hugo Broos and Francky Dury (my own personal choice). The popular choice was perhaps Marc Wilmots but he ruled himself out because he wanted to remain as assistant to Belgium coach Georges Leekens. It became clear that Wilmots had been linked with the post because it was Duchâtelet who hired (and then fired) him at Sint-Truiden.
However, it would be a much less well-known name who would be appointed in José Riga, who joined Standard from second tier side Visé. He guided the ambitious club to fifth place last season and is known for attacking football, which the Standard fans crave. It is no secret that certain sections of the Standard support never took to Dominique D’Onofrio whom they felt did not play stylish enough football despite the players at his disposal.
There are rumours that Riga has altered his philosophy and now prefers to play a more defensive style of football but we will simply have to wait and see. The major question mark against him is his lack of experience in coaching a top club – even if he was assistant coach at Sclessin between 2003 and 2005. While he may not have that experience, he possesses a phlegmatic temperament, which he showed at Mons, whom he led to promotion in his first season. In his second, he had to deal with a lot of problems, including the sale of leading goalscorer Mohamed Dahmane to Club Brugge.
He has been likened to Michel Preud’homme and if the comparison seems a little far-fetched, it should not be forgotten that Preud’homme had no coaching experience before becoming Standard coach (although it was only in his second spell that he won the club’s first title since 1983). The 53-year-old Riga is known as a student of the game and by his own admission, he is an admirer of Arsenal boss Arsène Wenger, due to the Frenchman’s willingness to work with a view to the medium and long-term and his readiness to give youth its head.
It will not be easy for Riga. First-team players such as Axel Witsel, Sinan Bolat, Steven Defour and Mehdi Carcela have been linked with moves away from Standard. There are just four weeks until the start of the league season and Standard are also involved in the qualification rounds for the Champions League. Crucially, Pierre François remains as director-general to give some stability and appointing Belgium u21 coach Jean François De Sart as sporting director looks a masterstroke.
A lot of changes have taken place at the club in a short space of time and the fans must be prepared to give the new owners and coach the time to put everything in place. However, the club looks to be following the lead of Club Brugge and becoming more professional. It is likely that Sclessin will be expanded in the years to come and there is a lot of young talent at the club, when one looks beyond the star names. Rome was not built in a day but the most passionate fans in Belgium are right to be cautiously optimistic.