Euros legends: How Paul van Himst became Belgium's very own Pele

Paul van Himst Belgium Euro 72 legend
(Image credit: PA)

An international debutant in 1960 at the age of 17, the precocious Paul van Himst combined mesmerising technical ability with such deadly finishing that he soon earned the nickname ‘the White Pele’.

The four-time Belgian Footballer of the Year racked up goals with startling regularity. He averaged better than a goal every other game for Anderlecht, for whom he won eight league titles and four Belgian Cups in a 16-year professional career, and he scored 30 goals in his 81 caps. That tally for the Red Devils remained unbeaten for more than four decades until Romelu Lukaku appeared on the scene.

Van Himst was on top form as Belgium reached the Euro 72 finals, scoring three times – including one in the quarter-final against Italy, the holders – before the four-team final tournament, which they then hosted.

Though Belgium lost to a West Germany side building up to World Cup glory two years later, Van Himst wouldn’t be left completely empty-handed. In the third-place play-off – in which the captain was matching a then-record of 68 Belgium caps – he scored to seal a 2-1 victory against Hungary and take the bronze medal.

It served as some sort of personal redemption for Van Himst, who had been the target of criticism two years earlier when Belgium crashed out in the 1970 World Cup group stage.

After retiring, Van Himst went on to become Belgium’s manager for the 1994 World Cup, where they beat the Netherlands en route to the last 16, and in UEFA’s 2004 poll he was voted Belgium’s best player of the past 50 years.

‘The White Pele’ was one of a host of big names – actual Pele among them – to line up for the Allies in 1981 classic flick Escape to Victory. It’s little wonder the Nazi guards failed to beat the prisoners; facing one Pele is hard enough...

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