Paul Van Himst, born in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw on October 2 1943, is a monument in Belgian football. His honour list is impressive: four Golden Shoes ('60, '61, '65, '74), in '91 the Super Golden Shoe and in '95 the Golden Shoe of the Century, 8 national titles with Anderlecht ('62, '64, '65, '66, '67, '68, '72, '74), four Cups ('65, '72, '73, '75), three times best Belgian striker (26 goals in '64, 25 in '66 and 20 in '68) good for a total of 235 goals in the league, best striker for the national team together with Bernard Voorhoof (30 goals) until Marc Wilmots broke the record. He was also the first football player who won the National Trophy for Sports Excellence in 1974. He played 457 official games for Anderlecht and in 64 he was selected for the European selection for a galamatch for the Danish Football Organisation. His nicknames were Popol, the white Pele, Polle Slalom and Pol Gazon. Being in international star, he played together with Pele and Bobby Moore in the movie 'Escape to Victory'.
His career began by playing football in the streets of Sint-Pieters-Leeuw and Anderlecht. At school, he demonstrated extraordinary football skills. Bill Gormlie, federal coach for Belgium and football instructor at the Saint-Nicolas Institute in Brussels, noticed his qualities and contacted Anderlecht's youth trainer Pol Huyghe. He made an agreement with the institute. Van Himst explains: "One of my nephews played for Sporting and one day my aunt took me with her to see him play. Vanden Stock was leading the trainings and I couldn't resist myself to kick a few balls. Vanden Stock immediately made me a member of Anderlecht's youth team. I was 8 years old. One year later, I was transfered to a better group. Jef Van Ingelghem became my new coach, along with Jef Vernimmen and Noulle Deraeymaecker. Later in my career, Noulle also became Anderlecht's coach of the first team. I was always better than my contemporaries. In those days, Anderlecht was at least 25 years ahead of the other clubs when it comes to guiding young players. Raoul Mollet was my physical trainer. I made a lot of progress while training with him."
Halfway the season of '59-'60, he made his debute. Trainer Gormlie was replaced by Deraeymaecker and he aligned Pol in the game against Beringen. "Cornelis, Heylens and Trappeniers weren't in the team anymore. I was wearing Jacky Stockman's number nine, because he was injured. We won 1-5 and ended second in the league, on one point of champions SK Lierse."
Meanwhile Vanden Stock had become federal coach and he had been following the young Van Himst. Nine years after first joining Anderlecht's youth teams, Paul had become a strong striker with an excellent dribbling and great finishing touch. Vanden Stock immediately selected Van Himst. Van Himst: "He was already thinking about selecting me for Belgium-Holland on October 2 1960. But he waited until the next international game against Zweden on October 19. I remember how it was raining that day. In the of the first minutes, Swedish defender Ake Johansson slipped and I appeared in front of their keeper, but I missed."
Meanwhile, trainer Pierre Sinibaldi joined Anderlecht. He brought a whole different style of play to Brussels. "It wasn't too bad to take a goal, as long as we made three goals ourselves", he said. That was perfect for players such as Jurion and Van Himst. European clubs had been following Anderlecht and Van Himst closely and in 1962, the Italian club Modena showed interest. To stimulate Paul, they even made his younger brother André who played in the lower divisions, a proposition. But Sporting refused to let Van Himst leave. Later on, also Barcelona and Real Madrid showed interest. Paul would remain mauve et blanc forever...
In those days, he worked just as Jurion and Stockman for chairman Roosens fuel company Labor. "I was a representative, but I was too young to drive. So Jef took me, or I went by bus or by train. I wasn't 18 yet, so Anderlecht opened a special bank account for me. I remained an amateur for only half a season. Then the whole team got the statute of semi-prof." Van Himst won 4 titles under Sinibaldi and under Beres and Deraeymaecker, he won two more. Van Himst: "Five titles in a row. It became a bit boring..."
He made his European debute against Real Madrid in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. "Real had players like Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento and Santamaria. They were unbeatable," said Paul. "But we obtained a 3-3 draw and Jean-Pierre Janssens, Puis and I scored. We know the rest of the story, right? Jurion scored the only goal in Brussels and Real was eliminated."
After Deraeymaecker, Paul trained under Höfling, Kessler, Polyte Vanden Bosch and Braems. The only one he had a fight with was Braems. Van Himst: "It was my mistake. Breams wanted to play with only one striker in the Cup Winners' Cup against Zürich in '73. He choose for Ladynszki. I was moved to the right wing, but I refused to accept that. I didn't want to play and was fined: 100.000 Francs. But I never had to pay..." Meanwhile, Sinibaldi returned for one year in 1970, when Paul played his only European final of his carreer in the Fairs Cup against Arsenal. "We should have won that final. They were happy with the 3-1 defeat in Brussels because it could have been a lot worse for them. In Arsenal, our equaliser went on the uprigh (Nordahl) and in stead of 1-1, the game ended on 3-0. On top of that: the referee was very bad and Kialunda was still injured."
It wasn't his only disappointment. The World Cup of 1970 in Mexico was a disaster. Everything that went wrong was blamed on Paul. A fight between Adidas and Puma? Van Himst! Players who were bored? Van Himst! The striker Lambert who failed to score? Van Himst! When he came back, the situation escalated and he wrote a lettre to the Belgian Football Organisation to announce the end of his international career. And Wilfried Puis joined his protest and did the same. But he was only absent during two games. He made his come-back against Scotland and scored twice. Not much later, he was invited for two gala matches: one in Lisbon for Colonna and one in Moscow for Yev Yashin.
Popol was also honoured with a few special gala matches: one for his 10 years service against Benfica and one for his 15 years of service against a world selection led by Pele and Cruijff. "Levaux, Standard's chairman and a friend of Pele, convinced him to play for the world selection. It was also difficult to book Cruijff for that game. But he eventually agreed. He's a friend of mine."
"My career came to an end. I had won 4 Golden Shoes, but I could have won a lot more. A certain time, the organisers decided that it's impossible to win the Golden Shoe twice in a row. My season of '73-'74 was extremely well. I never ate meat, only one egg per week, lots of vegetables and rice. A difficult diet, but it was worth it. So winning the Golden Shoe in 1974, was wonderfult for me."
In 1975, he left Anderlecht. Standard, Antwerp, Lierse and Charleroi showed interest, but Paul choose for Racing White Daring Molenbeek (RWDM). Van Himst: "I could go where ever I wanted. But a phone call of Michel Verschueren (working for RWDM back then) convinced me and I went to Molenbeek. I knew Vanden Stock found that hard to deal with, but for me it was close to home." I wasn't a success though. And when Anderlecht faced Molenbeek, several newspapers wrote Van Himst was drugged. "I'm still wondering what happened... I had to appear in front of a judge. I was found innocent. I can still see myself sitting in that locker room, unable to urinate. I had nothing to fear though..."
After two operation he decided to end his career while playing for Aalst. "Thanks to Georges Denil, member of Anderlecht's direction board, I made up with Vanden Stock and I became youth trainer at Anderlecht. A bit later I was even coaching the first team. Then I became coach for R.W.D.M. and the national team (on the World Cup in 1994). After the World Cup I was eplaced by Wilfried Vanmoer due to bad results."