From Senegal's Lions of Teranga to Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, England's Three Lions, Morocco's Atlas Lions and Iran's Lions of Persia, the king of beasts has pride of place in numerous footballing nicknames. Over in Belgium, former international defender Eric Gerets was dubbed the Lion of Rekem. However, another lionhearted figure looms large in Belgian football history, his imposing frame (he rises 6'2 tall), his power, his natural authority, his blond mane and his charisma setting him apart – and it just so happens that he is known as Caje [pronounced the same in French as the word 'cage'].
While some people referred to Jan Ceulemans, an unmistakable legend of the game in Belgium, as Captain Courage or Sterke Jan ('Jan the Strong'), "Caje is my most symbolic nickname," the 59-year-old told FIFA.com. "My grandparents had a bar called 'Kazzelo' and the patrons used to say 'Let's go get a drink at Kazze.' Kazze became Caje [the two sound very similar in French] through a play on words by a journalist who came to interview me at the beginning of my career. It stuck and most people still call me that even now."
This moniker and his attitude to it speak volumes of how attached Ceulemans is to his roots. Born in Lier in 1957, the attacking midfielder spent his entire career in his homeland, trotting out for just two different outfits: his local side, Lierse, and giants Club Brugge. A fiercely patriotic Belgian, he represented his country a record 96 times, scoring 23 goals.
"A career like that is absolutely impossible nowadays. Ninety per cent of the current Diables Rouges squad are honing their skills in Europe's big leagues. To reach a certain level and stay there, they have no choice but to compete in those championships," Ceulemans remarked. "In 1980, I had a golden opportunity to join AC Milan. At the time I felt I was too young to make that leap. I wanted to fully establish myself in Bruges and thought – wrongly – that more offers like that would present themselves in the future. Perhaps I made a mistake from a financial point of view, but nevertheless I still feel I had a fantastic career."
A roar talent
It all began for Caje at Lierse when he was just seven years old. He rose up the ladder, rung by rung, until he broke into the first team – and the Belgian national side – in 1976. Ceulemans would go on to chalk up 40 goals in 112 appearances for his hometown club, where he remained until the end of the 1977-78 season, in which they finished just four points adrift of champions Club Brugge, his next (and final) destination.
That near miss having whetted his appetite for silverware, in Bruges Ceulemans' predatory instincts would get their reward. A tally of 240 goals in 501 games helped to deliver three Belgian titles (in 1980, 1988 and 1990) and two domestic cups (in 1986 and 1991), not to mention the admiration of his peers: he won the Belgian Golden Shoe (an award voted for, rather than given to the top goalscorer) on no fewer than three occasions. Each accolade came in a year in which the Diables Rouges also scaled the heights: 1980, 1985 and 1986.
"EURO 1980 remains the highlight of my career," recalled Ceulemans. Small wonder, as the talisman helped fire unfancied Belgium to a surprise spot in the final, uncharted territory for them at a major tournament. "We beat Scotland, who were at the peak of their powers, in qualifying, and then finished ahead of England, Spain and Italy in the group stage before losing to Germany in the final. At the end of the match against La Roja, which was undoubtedly the finest game I was involved in during my career, I even said to myself, 'Jan, you and the team played incredible football today'."
Belgium and Ceulemans could not emulate these exploits at the FIFA World Cup™ in 1982 or at UEFA EURO 1984. Not until qualifying for the 1986 World Cup and at the tournament in Mexico would the Diables Rouges and their skipper capture the imagination again. Though they fell to a Diego Maradona-led Argentina in the semi-finals, their display is still widely considered Belgium's greatest stand on the world stage. "I'm prouder of our performance as a team than of wearing the armband, which at that time automatically went to the most capped member of the squad," said the former prolific midfielder, words that neatly encapsulate the leadership qualities that led Caje to be rechristened Captain Courage.
Indeed, while the team as a whole were well worthy of a sizeable entry in Belgian football's history books, much must inevitably centre on Ceulemans and the graft which he married to his craft. "That's one of the three attributes all good footballers must have… To succeed, a player has to possess the right blend of mindset, talent and physical capabilities. There are only a handful of exceptions to this rule, such as Lionel Messi and Maradona. You can be the most talented player out there, but these days if you don't have the physique or mentality to go with that, you won't make it."
Coaching, a very different animal
After calling time on a 17-year playing career, Ceulemans ventured into the jungle of coaching. The demands of the dugout make it a very different animal. As he joked, "It's a job I love, but being a player is so much better. You don't have the stress, you can focus solely on your own performances, and above all you're younger!"
Ceulemans kicked off his second career in 1992, taking charge of Eendracht Aalst, and within two years he had guided them from the second division into the top flight and subsequently into the UEFA Cup. He followed that up at Ingelmunster, whom he led to promotion from the third division to the second, after which he moved back into the top tier with Westerlo, where his spell at the helm was crowned by Belgian Cup glory in 2001. This success opened the doors at his old stomping ground Club Brugge, but he only lasted a couple of years in the hotseat before returning to his previous post. Another cup-final appearance with Westerlo would ensue in 2010/11, but this time he ended up on the losing side and he failed to prevent the club from slipping to relegation the following season.
"I have to admit that being Jan Ceulemans helped me at the beginning of my coaching career. But if the results don't follow, the value of your name soon diminishes," acknowledged the 58-year-old, who is currently bidding to steer Deinze back into the second division.
"After all these years as a coach, though, I can honestly say that I've always sought to remain the same person and to stay true to my character, which is what matters most to me," the legendary lionheart concluded, neatly summing up one of the reasons for his enduring status.