PSV Eindhoven legend Eric Gerets is the latest player to enter the Football-Oranje hall of fame.

  • By M. Joseph Valler

 Eric Gerets

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said ‘There are no second acts in American lives’. This rule does not appear to apply to Belgians, however.

Eric Gerets arrived in the Netherlands under a cloud. At age of thirty-one, his peak playing years looked to be behind him, along with any hope of domestic success. He had also been implicated in a bribery scandal to boot. Gerets appeared to be in hiding, so few could predict that at this stage in his life, the remainder of his career would define him as a player, make him a household name and one of the greatest players ever to put on a PSV Eindhoven shirt. At the end of those seven years, after Captaining a side which had dominated Dutch football and in 1987, Europe; many were unaware there had even been a first act.


Eric Maria Gerets was born on 18th May, 1954 in Rekem, Belgium. Gerets began his career playing for his local amateur team AA Rekem, before joining the then Belgian league title holders Standard Liege. Initially, Gerets was unable to break into the first team under Rene Hauss, as the titleholders were packed with such talent as Wilfried Van Moer, Christian Piot , Nico Dewalque, Jean Thiessen and Leon Semmeling. Gerets eventually made his debut on 16 April, 1972; replacing Silvester Takac in a league game against FC Diest. Despite making this debut in the 1971-72 season, Gerets did not become a regular until the following season, when he replaced the 29-year old Liege stalwart and Belgian International, Jacques Beurlet as the first choice right-back for the Rouches. These formative years at Standard Liege were not marked by success either, as the mid to late 70s marked a decline in Liege’s fortunes and they seemed destined to finish third in the league each season (after Club Brugge and Anderlecht).


Despite the lack of domestic success, Gerets had developed into a tough, disciplined and tactically shrewd right back; this progression meant that inevitably Gerets would soon gain his first international cap and did so on October 1975, against the GDR. This cap would herald the beginning of an international career that would end with him becoming the Rode Duivelsthird most capped player with 86 appearances.

Gerets played at four major tournaments, with the first being the 1980 European Championship in Italy. Gerets only scored two goals in his entire international career and one of these would come in this tournament as he scored the opening goal in the 2–1 win against Spain which ensured that Belgium qualified as group winners. The Belgium team of 1980 is considered to be the first of the nations ‘golden generation’ and certainly most exciting to emerge at that time due to the offensively-minded Erwin Vandenbergh, Jan Caulemans, Julien Cools, Francois van der Elst and Liege teammate Van Moer. Raymond Goethals’ team wowed audiences and defied expectation by reaching the final that year but lost to West Germany by a single goal (1–2) scored by Horst Hrubesch two minutes from time. Two years later, the World Cup in Spain arrived and Gerets had already been handed the Captains armband. Despite a famous victory over defending champions Argentina, however; the Gerets led Belgians could only manage the 2nd round.


The 1980s arrived with an ambitious Standard Liege determined to replicate the success of the late 60’s / early 70’s. To achieve this, the Rouches hired a succession of managers including legendary Feyenoord manager Ernst Happel, before settling on a Cup Winners Cup winning coach known in some circles as “le sorcier” or “le magicien”, but formally known as Raymond Goethals. The determination of the Liege board meant that Goethals was given the funds to fit out the Liege side with proven talent, as well as dipping into the clubs own youth team pool. Weathering the influx of newcomers, Gerets remained in defence and became a Captain who would lead established, older players such as like Arie Haan, Simon Tahamata, Walter Meeuws and Jos Daerden, as well as greener, youth team graduates such as Guy Vandermissen and Michel Preud’homme. Harnessing this fine balance of youth and experience, Standard finished runners up in the league in 1980, before winning the national cup in 1981 with a 4–1 win over Lokeren SC. This team had broken their duck with the cup victory and under Gerets’ captaincy, the Rouches would go on to win two consecutive titles and reach a European Cup Winners Cup Final, losing to Barcelona. Despite this, individually Gerets would go on lift his aforementioned 2nd title and was also presented with the 1982 Golden Shoe as Belgium’s best league player. In what was to be his last season at the club, Gerets captained Liege to their ninth league title; one which would prove to be their last for 25 years.

In 1983, Gerets was 29 and for several years had longed for a transfer abroad. When that call finally came, it was from AC Milan. Gerets left Standard and as per tradition, Internazionale made what they believed to be an equivalent signing to upstage their rivals (see Klinsman, Breame & Matthaus to Inter in order to upstage the Rossoneris signings of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard) so Ludo Coeck moved from Anderlecht to the Nerazzurri that same summer. Whilst Gerets and his new teammates struggled to curb Juve’s dominance; a storm was brewing back home in Belgium.

An investigation had been carried out into bribery and corruption in Belgian football and the inquiry had uncovered unxeplained and / or suspicious transactions in the Standard Liege bank accounts dating back to the 1981/82 season. Raymond Goethals and numerous Liege players past and present, were arrested and questioned – despite some of whom being in training with the national team at this time – Eric Gerets was one of those players. Confessions were given and some admitted that, in 1982, they had bribed the players of Waterschei at the behest of Goethals, who was concerned that the title would be lost if it was not purchased. Goethals, the Waterschei and Liege players were found guilty and subsequently suspended by the Belgian FA. Gerets received a suspension of one year and ended his Milan career, playing only thirteen games; the suspension would also mean that he would also miss the next European Championship in France.

By the time the ban had been lifted, Eric Gerets was in his early 30’s and when he was approached by Dutch side MVV Maastricht, it appeared that his career was winding down and that he would be condemned to a succession of roles in lower leagues. Gerets accepted the offer and the right back took shelter with MVV for half a season, before a surprising phone call came from PSV Eindhoven manager Jan Reker.


PSV were in a period of stagnation. It had been eight years since last Eredivise title, nine years since their last KNVB cup victory and seven years since their last European trophy. When Jan van Beveren lifted that UEFA Cup on that night 26 April, 1978; little did he or his teammates know that this would signal the end of that team and be the beginning of such a barren period. The following season it started; a 6-0 UEFA Cup loss against Saint-Etienne hastened the sacking of Kees Rijvers, a man who had led the North Brabant side to three consecutive titles and two cups. The Captain van Beveren, disillusioned by this sacking and the state of Dutch football; left the Netherlands unhappily for the NASL after spending a decade at the club and accumulating 291 league games. Next, frequent clashes between record goalscorer Willy Van der Kuijlen and Rijvers’ replacement Thijs Libregts led to the former’s departure in 1982 after 18 seasons at the club and accumulating 308 goals in 528 games.

In 1985, this torpor forced the club chairmen Jacques Ruts and Kees Ploegsma into a new way of thinking and change of direction. The new era began when Hans Kraay Snr, became the new director of football; followed by the appointment of Jan Reker as coach. These two men would work together to build the team that would take its first steps in attaining Eredivisie dominance once more. Under this new regime, a different kind of player was signed – cultured performers and players with flair such as like Ruud Gullit from Feyenoord, Soren Lerby from Monaco and Gerald Vanenburg from Ajax. One of the first signings of the era was Eric Gerets and he joined alongside Frank Arsnesen and Gullit. With the team already claiming talented stalwarts like Huub Stevens and Willy van de Kerkhof; under the Captaincy of Gullit, PSV headed the league table for the majority of the 1985-86 season before claiming the Eredivisie with an emphatic 8-2 win against Go Ahead Eagles.

The following season, the new era of stability was shaken by an instance of infighting which harkened back to the then recent past; Gullit criticized the club and (now manager) Hans Kraay Snr. in an interview and the subsequent warning Gullit received was deemed too lenient by Kraay, who himself resigned also. He was replaced by 41 year old Guus Hiddink, in his first managerial role upon graduating from assistant to Kraay. Hiddink immediately allowed Gullit to join AC Milan and replaced the gap in the team by signing Ronald Koeman from Ajax; handing the Captains armband to Eric Gerets in the process.


In 1986, the Belgian national team’s ‘Golden Generation’ would fulfill their potential. The manager Guy Thys retained the team that had, since 1980, established themselves as players on the main stage. With Gerets marshaling defense and Jean-Marie Pfaff minding goal, the team had a backbone which gave confidence to an extremely dangerous midfield dominated by Anderlecht players. Such is the standing of the Belgian league at that time, that Gerets and Pfaff were the only two players in the side which did not play domestic football in their own country. Qualification had been at the expense of the Netherlands, as the neighbours met in a playoff match to decide who would go to Mexico. The Oranje of 1986 included Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten, and although these players were the finished article domestically, this force had yet to translate onto the international scene (that would come two years later).

The Rode Duivels made it through the group stage to face a Soviet Union side comprising of seven members of the Dynamo Kyiv, Cup Winners Cup team. The Soviets took the lead through Igor Belanov and the Belgians equalised just after the interval with a goal courtesy of Enzo Scifo. Belanov reinstated Russia’s lead before the Jan Ceulemans put the Belgians level once again. An Eric Gerets cross provided the opportunity for an unmarked Stéphane Demol to put the Belgians ahead for the first time and the result was effectively sealed by Nico Claesen. Igor Belanov completed his hat-trick to make the game 4-3 but the Rode Duivels held their nerve and made it to the last 8 for the first time in their history. Their quarter-final opponents were Spain, whose 85th minute equalizer from Juan Antonio Senor took the game into extra-time and then to penalties (Caulemens had given Belgium the lead after 35 minutes). Converted penalties from Claesen, Scifo, Hugo Broos, Patrick Vervoort and Leo van der Elst meant that the Belgians had reached the semi-final, Argentina and the man synonymous with that World Cup; Diego Maradona. Unfortunately, a 0-2 loss to the eventual champions, meant that Belgium would leave Mexico in fourth place but achieving their best finish ever in World Cup competition.

With Hiddink in charge on the side lines and Gerets leading on the pitch, the 1987-88 Eredivisie season turned out to be the most successful in PSV’s history. With the North Brabantian side scoring 117 goals, the league title was quickly secured with four matches remaining. The KNVB Cup was next and Roda JC were PSVs opponents. The game finished 3-2 to PSV in extra time and Gerets scored twice, the first and only time he would ever do so in his career. The European Cup campaign began with wins against Fenerbahce and Rapid Vienna; Bordeaux and Real Madrid were dispatched in the quarter and semi finals, respectively. The final against Benfica was held in Stuttgart and remained goalless after extra time meaning a penalty shootout would decide the tie. Converted penalties from Koeman, Kieft, Ivan Nielsen, Vanenburg, Lerby and Ivan Janssen kept the tie at deadlock until Hans Van Breukelen saved the sixth Benfica penalty by Antonio Veloso. PSV had won the European Cup and completed the treble.

The success of this European Cup win meant that PSV were able to sign Romario but lost Koeman who left the side to rejoin Johan Cruyff at Barcelona. Despite the loss of Koeman, the 1988-89 season title was secured once again and PSV also defeated Groningen in the KNVB Cup Final of that year. In the European Cup, Real Madrid returned their revenge for the previous seasons defeat by eliminating PSV in the quarter-finals. The following season PSV could only manage second in the league, but won the KNVB Cup after defeating Vitesse (1-0) and in 1990, Hiddink left to join Fenerbahche and was replaced by Bobby Robson.


In 1990, the now 36-year-old Gerets also went to the World Cup in Italy. It was to be his last major tournament and his Red Devils were knocked out by England in the second round after a late, memorable volley from David Platt. Following this defeat, Gerets handed the Captains armband to Francois van der Elst, bowing out of the national team with a total of 86 caps and two goals. 


With Gerets retained as club captain by the incoming Robson, PSV won a further two league titles; the first one on goal difference (with Ajax) and the second one in the penultimate match against Groningen. Amidst this success, there were parallels with the Ruud Gullit saga, as another of PSV’s superstars became too big for the club with negative consequences. This time it was Romario; adored by the fans for his three consecutive golden boots (1989, 1990 and 1991) but who angered his teammates with unprofessionalism and selfishness. Robson’s frequent clashes with the Brazilian (and lack of European success) led to the Englishman’s sacking in 1992. By this time, Gerets was 38 years old and felt the time was right to bow out. The Belgian’s final match was against Tottenham Hotspur and ended with a goal. A penalty was conceded by Spurs and his teammates allowed him to step up. On the 60 minute mark, Gerets was substituted to an emotional standing ovation.


He left the pitch on that final day, considered to be one of the greatest players in Belgian football history and at his peak he was regarded as one of the best right-backs in Europe. His contribution to PSVs success is immeasurable; he provided the stability season after season and this allowed the club to build on their success. The bravery, courage and heart he offered on the pitch earned him a nickname: “The Lion (of Flanders)”. Few would have predicated this peak would have been after the age of 31. In light of the trying times which led to him signing for PSV, it was a nickname well and truly earned.


Matthew Valler (7 Posts)