Sporting Charleroi:The mystery club causing a stir in Belgium
Slowly yet steadily, power is changing hands in Belgium. Last time out, minnows Zulte Waregem shook the country - finishing third in the Jupiler League. This time around, however, it appears to be the turn of Sporting Charleroi. Midway through the campaign, the Zebras are second behind Club Brugge. Remarkably, they've beaten defending champions, Anderlecht, not once but twice already.
For all we know, the Belgian top-flight has always been a two-horse race. If not Anderlecht, then you can almost heedlessly bet on Brugge strolling to the title. Both share a whopping 48 honours. While the former won the title last term, Brugge seems most likely to dislodge them come early May. Unusually though, Charleroi, not the incumbent, is rivalling the Blue-Black.
Founded in 1904, Charleroi is one of the oldest teams not just in Belgium, but the whole of Western Europe. Despite their 113-year history in the game, that hasn't necessarily translated into success. Charleroi is still in the hunt for their maiden league crown. The closest they've come was a solitary runner-up finish nearly half a century ago. In fact, the Zebras are second from bottom on the overall ranking of the country's elite clubs.
Forty-three years. That's how long it took the Zebras to gain promotion for the first time, where they remained for nine seasons. Following relegation, it took them another nine years to make it bag into the big time. After two seasons at the top, they went down again. Since then it's been a rather back and forth movement for the club. A typical yo-yo team, if you wish.
The signs have been positive for Charleroi in recent times, especially this term. Having narrowly missed out on European places last season, the Zebras are making giant strides. With 39 points, Les Carolos is second in the table, eight points behind Brugge and five ahead of Anderlecht. The club from Wallonia has failed to win just twice. First against the Blue-Black in September, then a month later at KV Oostende.
Charleroi, though, owes its improbable turnaround to 51-year-old manager, Felice Mazzu. Mazzu has been at the helm since 2013. Although not a particularly huge name in Belgium, the ex-AFC Tubize coach has silently worked his way into the fans' hearts. At the 15,000-capacity Stade du Pays de Charleroi is where Mazzu's team play their home matches. That's been the case since 2000 UEFA European Championship in Belgium. The club is skippered by one-time Barcelona prodigy, Francisco Javier.
Any chance of a first league title?
In all honesty, no. Next season looks more realistic for Charleroi. They are seemingly short in squad depth, experience and quality to keep up the momentum until season's end. Knowing The Belgian Pro League makes it extremely difficult for smaller teams to win the title, unlike plenty of European leagues, the top spot doesn't necessarily guarantee the crown. Rather, it is decided by the post-season play-off. Meaning even if Charleroi finish first, they must still partake in a six-team round-robin mini-league. More often than not, the eventual champions aren't even the side who finished top.
However, the Zebras will be more than content with a continental spot.