The landscape may be flat, but the passions are running high. Belgium is not immune to the fever that sweeps through all football countries when two top clubs come face to face.
Everyone is divided between the Rouges of Standard and the Mauves of Anderlecht. The season's first bill-topper took place on Sunday, with the nation's eyes fixed firmly on 'l'enfer de Sclessin' (the hell of Sclessin), the district of Liege where the stadium stands.
There is no denying that this Belgian classique has lost some of its lustre, so deep has the disparity become between Anderlecht and Standard over the last 15 years. However, the stakes are always so much greater than a mere matter of points or league position. When the fixture list is published, the derby date is marked on thousands of calendars across the land and even when fans celebrate the title, the partying is slightly muted if their team lost to its bitterest rivals during the season. A victory in the classique constitutes another entry on the club's roll of honour.
This year, the crunch game came on matchday 11, and despite a white-hot atmosphere in the stands, with both sets of fans roaring their favourites on, neither side could find a way past two in-form goalkeepers: Standard's Olivier Renard and Anderlecht's Daniel Zitka.
For the Mauves, led by Bart Goor and Nicolas Frutos, the stakes were threefold. First, they wanted to stay in touch with leaders RC Genk, whom they now trail by five points, with Standard a further six points behind in sixth position. Secondly, they wanted to expunge the memory of their disappointing displays in the UEFA Champions League, which have yielded two draws and two defeats, the last of which was a 4-1 humbling at the San Siro on Wednesday against AC Milan. Lastly, they were desperate to confirm the supremacy bestowed on them by the weight of history.
After all, in the 157 meetings between the pair, the club from the capital have won 72, lost 44 and drawn 41. All football fans know that statistics mean nothing when kick-off comes around, but the Anderlecht fans like nothing better than reminding their rivals of the 6-0 thrashing meted out at Sclessin in 1999. Similarly, the Standard fans wax lyrical about the 4-1 triumph recorded at the Parc Astrid in November 2003. A further source of Rouge pride is the fact of having drawn first blood in the long-running duel courtesy of a 1-0 win on 4 January 1920 in Brussels, the first-ever meeting on 19 October 1919 in Liege having proved inconclusive (a 2-2 draw).
More than just football
Clearly, a Standard-Anderlecht match means a lot more than just football. It is all about history, politics, culture and sociology.
Let us start by giving credit where it is due regarding the size of their respective trophy cabinets, because the rivalry between the natives of Liege and Brussels is first and foremost a matter of supremacy in terms of national and European football. On these terms, Anderlecht stand head and shoulders above their rivals. With 28 titles, seven Belgian cups, two UEFA Cup Winners' Cups, one UEFA Cup, and two UEFA Supercups, Royal Sporting Club d'Anderlecht are firmly ensconced as the biggest club in Belgian history.
As for the Rouges - pronounced 'Rouches' with the Liege regional accent - their silverware roll of honour consists of eight domestic titles, five league cups, two Belgian Supercups and one UEFA Cup Winners' Cup Final. A healthy haul which is bettered only by Club Bruges in the race to keep up with Brussels behemoths Anderlecht.
However, for more years than their fans would care to remember, Standard have been enduring a barren spell. They last lifted the title in 1993, their ambition having all too often evaporated as a result of unsuccessful signings, to the point where the red flame has dwindled to little more than a spark. To add insult to injury, the Mauves have romped to title after title, booking a regular place at the prestigious UEFA Champions League feast in the process. That would be enough, you might think, to discourage even the most diehard Standard supporter.
'You can change your sex, but not your club'
But the Rouches are made of sterner stuff. "A fan's attachment to his football club goes a lot deeper than their standard of play," explained Jean-Michel De Wael, a sports sociologist at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, on the subject of the Liege fans' love for their club despite over a decade of deep disappointment. "You can change nationality, job, even sex, but you just don't change club."
More than a sporting contest, it amounts to a rivalry between two cities and two mentalities which is expressed whenever the two most popular clubs in the country meet. Because in the Flatlands, football is a matter of cultural identity. Dubbed 'the Passionate City', Liege is the largest town in the Walloon region, an area that boasts a strong industrial heritage that is at the root of the no-nonsense working-class image associated with its inhabitants. Brussels, in contrast, is regarded as the rich and powerful city of the bourgeoisie.
It will come as no surprise then that Standard's watchwords are passion and commitment, while the Mauves have made panache and elegance their leitmotif. The spectators at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne, Standard's stronghold, are first and foremost fond of good honest football, whatever the result. Their counterparts at the Parc Astrid, meanwhile, are renowned for being demanding and not appreciating victory devoid of flair. However, these stereotypes are a little simplistic, as plenty of stylish players have donned the red shirt, while an equal number of grafters have sported the famous mauve jersey.
To add a bit more spice to this already heated rivalry, there is nothing like taking a look at a few of the previous encounters that have passed into local folklore, either by dint of high stakes or a whiff of scandal, as well as at those players and coaches who have defected to the other side.
The most recent episode of note in this respect came on 21 April this year, the 32nd matchday of the domestic championship. For the first time since 1995, the small matter of the crowning of the champions hinged on the meeting between the two giants. With three games left to play, Standard were one point better off as they prepared to visit their rivals, so they knew that victory would as good as guarantee them their first title since way back in 1983.
However, the Mauves won the game 2-0 and went on to secure their 28th title. For the Rouges, it was a case of history repeating itself in the most painful way possible, as 11 years previously, with Robert Waseige at the helm, they had allowed an Anderlecht side coached by Johan Boskamp to pinch the championship from under their noses by slipping to defeat at the Parc Astrid on the 30th matchday.
The shadow of 'Raymond la science'
But Standard have no shortage of happy memories when it comes to quashing their Brussels rivals' title hopes. After Anderlecht had strung together title successes between 1964 and 1968, the Liege outfit put an end to the capital club's domination by clinching three consecutive championships of their own (1969, 1970, 1971).
Anderlecht subsequently gave Standard a dose of their own medicine in the 1980s. During this tough period for the Walloon club, all its supporters had to cheer about were three Belgian Cup final appearances in 1984, 1988 and 1989. To cap it all, on two of those occasions, the Rouges fell at the final hurdle to their nemesis from Brussels.
More salt was rubbed into their wounds by the fact that at the time, the Brussels outfit were managed by the man who had written the finest pages in the Standard Liege history books: a certain Raymond Goethals. Having passed away two years ago, the shadow of 'Raymond la science' once again hovered over the classique.
These days, the two teams are coached by living legends of their respective clubs, not to mention of Belgian football as a whole. Michel Preud'homme for the Rouges and Franky Vercauteren in the Mauves' camp both shone for the Red Devils during the 1980s. Indeed, both clubs' ranks have been graced by a host of big-name players over the years. The Liege fans, for example, have been wowed by the likes of Eric Gerets, Horst Hrubesch, Robert Prosinecki and Marc Wilmots, while the spectators in Brussels have applauded the stylish efforts of such luminaries as Hugo Broos, Luc Nillis, Vincenzo Scifo and Paul van Himst.
Anderlecht's most recent idol, the Swede Par Zetterberg, hung up his boots at the end of last season, but he knows more than anyone what an encounter at l'enfer de Sclessin represents. "The closer the bus gets to the stadium, the more we feel like we're behind enemy lines," he warns. "It's not that the fans throw things at us, but it's better not to look at all the signs intended for us. Let's just say it's pretty clear that, for the fans, it's the match of the year."