Champions League poor boys Gent dream on
Tears flowed after KAA Gent became the first Belgian team to reach the Champions League last 16 and a draw against Germany’s Wolfsburg means their Cinderella fairy tale goes on.
The Belgians have risen from the financial ashes and reached the last 16 with an annual budget of just 26 million euros ($28.5 million) — the smallest of the remaining contenders and a shoestring compared to the likes of Barcelona and Chelsea.
Their Wolfsburg opponents spent 32 million euros on attacker Andre Schurrle alone.
But as the Belgians and Germans are in the Champions League for the first time the clash means at least one new club will be in the Champions League quarter-finals.
“Here we come,” Gent warned Wolfsburg in a Twitter post seconds after the draw was made.
Gent were left incredulous after beating Zenit St Petersburg 2-1 last week to get second place in Group H.
“What has happened to us?” said striker Thomas Foket, in tears, as he left the field.
“It is only when we see the draw that we will understand our success.”
It is a success that club president Ivan de Witte could barely imagine when he took over the ailing Flanders club in 1999 with 23 million euros of debt.
He rebuilt the club finances and in 2013 they moved into a purpose-built 20,000 stadium. Last season they won the Belgian league title for the first time.
– Football miracles -Coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck has also worked miracles with his — until-now — unheralded players.
“My players are the heroes,” Vanhaezebrouck said last week pointing to the likes of Laurent Depoitre the striker who is likely to be one of the most sought after at the end of the season, and Danijel Milicevic.
“My job is to get the most out of these boys. But once they are on the field I am just a pawn and they have to do everything.”
Milicevic scored three goals in the group campaign.
Depoitre, 27, is another unimagined success. He was playing in the Belgian third division four years ago and only reached the top league last season.
The 1.9 metres (six feet three inch) — player who scored on his Belgium debut in October — hit one of the goals against Zenit last week to reinforce his standing.
The striker said he would rather have had a last 16 game against Real Madrid.
He has already been linked to a move to England’s Premier League after the Euro 2016.
And Gent will at least have some money to replace him on top of any transfer fee.
They earned 12 million euros from the group phase and reaching the last 16 will guarantee them another 26 million euros — doubling their annual budget.
Wolfsburg said they will tread carefully into the tie.
“Gent asserted themselves in a group against Valencia and Lyon and alongside us are the surprise package in the round of 16. We have big respect for them,” said Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking.
“For both teams, the knockout stages of the Champions League are uncharted territory. So I expect an interesting encounter.”
“They have a good system and play football that is good to watch — they deserve to be here,” Zenit’s much-travelled coach Andre Villas-Boas said as he watched Gent celebrate the extension of their European dream.