From Krncevic & Okon to Ryan & O’Neill: Belgium’s rich history with Aussie players

Aiden O’Neill will swap the Isuzu UTE A-League for the Belgian Pro League in 2023-24. KEEPUP takes a look at the previous Australians to have plied their trades in the European competition.

There is a rich footballing history between Australia and Belgium.

The Belgian Pro League has been a breeding ground for several Australians over the years – from Eddie Krncevic, Paul Okon, Frank Farina and Aurelio Vidmar, to Maty Ryan, Archie Thompson and Danny Vukovic.

O’NEILL: Socceroo joins Standard Liege

Kevin Muscat was also the first Australian man to earn a top-level European coaching opportunity when he was appointed by Sint-Truiden in 2020 after winning a pair of Isuzu UTE A-League Championships and the Australia Cup with Melbourne Victory.

Aiden O’Neill is set to join that extensive list when the Socceroos midfielder swaps the A-League Men premiers for Standard Liege in 2023-24, following in the footsteps of former Melbourne City teammate Jordy Bos, who is also off to Westerlo.

Former Perth Glory sensation Keegan Jelacic has also joined Gent.

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As Belgium awaits the 24-year-old, KEEPUP looks at the players to have made the move previously.

Eddie Krncevic (Cercle Brugge, Anderlecht, FC Liege, Eendracht Aalst and Royal Charleroi)

Krncevic blazed a trail for Australians in Belgium’s top flight, all the way back in 1985 following his arrival from Sydney Croatia.

The former Socceroo, who went on to coach Carlton and Marconi in the NSL, won the league title with Belgian giants Anderlecht in 1986-97. He also claimed a pair of Belgian Cups (1988) and 1989) and the Belgian Super Cup (1987).

In 1989, Krncevic was also the league’s top goalscorer (23), having led Cercle Brugge to the Belgian Cup trophy in 1985.

“When I first arrived, they said who’s this? What’s this kangaroo doing here? They didn’t take (Australians) seriously,” Krncevic told Optus Sport in 2021.

“Then Frank (Farina) came and was top goalscorer the next season (89-90), Aurelio Vidmar later on (94-95) and Paul Okon won Player of the Year (1994-95). Three Golden Boot winners and a Player of the Year award – it’s a great achievement for a country that’s not soccer-minded. It opened the doors.

“Being top scorer there was one of my proudest moments and winning three Belgian Cups. In terms of achievements, that was my most successful period, not many people get to win that many (trophies).

“It was hard to score goals back then, you had two defenders chopping you, it was pretty rugged. And Belgium, like Italy, was quite defensive.”

Aurelio Vidmar (Kortrijk, Waregem and Standard Liege)

After an NSL Championship with Adelaide City in 1986, Vidmar eventually made the move abroad via Kortrijk in 1991. It was the start of four years in Belgium.

It was at Standard Liege where the ex-Australia international enjoyed a successful 1994-95. The club – boasting future Belgium head coach Marl Wilmots – finished runners-up to Anderlecht, while Vidmar – who went on to coach Adelaide United in the A-Leagues – claimed the Golden Boot.

Paul Okon (Club Brugge and KV Oostende)

Okon is now an adopted Belgian, such is his history and impact on football in the country.

The Australian Hall of Famer left Marconi for Club Brugge in 1991 and never looked back. During his five years at the club, he won the Belgian Golden Shoe (1995-96), the league title (1995-96) and two Belgian Cups (1994-95 and 1995-96). A move to Dino Zoff’s Lazio followed in 1996, though he did eventually return to Belgium with Oostende in 2004.

Okon also worked as an assistant with Club Brugge in 2022-23.

“At the moment it is the most viewed competition in the world with regards to scouts,” he told Optus Sport previously.

“It’s a very good platform to develop. There is pressure, but it’s not as cut-throat, do or die. You get that opportunity to blossom. All those players came here at the start of their careers, as opposed to the end.

“From my own experience and having come at a time when there were other Aussies, it’s a country that is run very similar to Australia. When you move to the other side of the world at a young age, even though it’s the dream, it’s a new country, new language, new rules, bureaucracy.

“Belgium is run in very organised way like Australia and it does help you to settle in quicker. Health system, services – those important things you take for granted. You think you’re just gong to play football, but all these factors matter.”

Frank Farina (Club Brugge)

Farina was another Australian to have taken the Belgian Pro League by storm.

The former Socceroos boss headed to Club Brugge from Marconi in 1988 and he played a key role in the club’s title-winning season in 1989-90. Not to mention he was integral in their Belgian Cup (1990-91) and Belgian Super Cup success (1990 and 1991).

Farina earned the Golden Boot and Best Foreign Player awards in Club Brugge’s triumphant 1989-90 campaign before Bari came calling in 1991.

“It was an accolade for the team. It was a very difficult season and we did not hit our straps before 10 games or so,” he told SBS in 2019.

“After we got knocked out of Europe and the Belgian Cup our only focus was the league and we went on an unbeaten run of about 30 games, including 10 in the following season. Again, they were great memories.”

Josip Skoko (Genk)

Another of Australia’s finest exports, Skoko spent four years with Genk after announcing himself at Croatian powerhouse Hajduk Split.

At Genk, he was named captain and helped the club win the title in 2001-02.

Skoko also captained Genk in a blockbuster UEFA Champions League showdown against Spanish juggernaut Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu – a team that boasted Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Fernando Hierro, Luis Figo, Raul, Guti and Michel Salgado.

That season he also went up against Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta’s Roma.

Graham Arnold (RFC Liege and Royal Charleroi)

The Socceroos boss has history in Belgium, beyond his time in the Netherlands.

Arnold spent three years in Belgium between RFC Liege and Royal Charleroi.

Maty Ryan (Club Brugge and Genk)

When Ryan first left Central Coast Mariners and Australia, it was for Club Brugge in 2013.

It was a shrewd transfer as the star goalkeeper quickly established himself in the starting XI and a fan favourite among the supporter base.

Ryan won the 2014-15 Belgian Cup and twice claimed the Belgian Pro League Goalkeeper of the Year in 2014 and 2015 before Valencia lured the Socceroo to LaLiga in 2015.

Socceroos captain Ryan – now starring for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie – eventually made his way back to Belgium, albeit on loan at Genk in 2017.

Danny Vukovic (Genk)

Like his fellow gloveman, Vukovic impressed during his time in Belgium’s top flight.

A star in the Isuzu UTE A-League, the Australian landed at Genk in 2017 and it was the start of four successful years at Luminus Arena.

When Vukovic left in 2021 and later returned to the Mariners – winning the Championship last season, he took a Belgian Pro League and Belgian Super Cup medal with him.

Trent Sainsbury (Kortrijk)

The Australia international and A-Leagues graduate played in Belgium as recently as last year.

Sainsbury enjoyed two years with Kortrijk, scoring a career-high six goals for the club.

Other Australians to have played in the Belgian top flight:

  • James Jeggo (KAS Eupen)
  • Jason Davidson (KAS Eupen – current)
  • Stephen Laybutt (RE Mouscron and Gent)
  • Archie Thompson (Lierse)
  • George Kulcsar (Royal Antwerp)
  • Dominic Longo (Cercle Brugge)
  • Andrew Vlahos (Cercle Brugge)
  • Lorenz Kindtner (Club Brugge, Sint-Truidense, Oostende, Cercle Brugge, KRC Zuid-West-Vlaanderen and KSV Roeselare))
  • Joe Spiteri (Lierse)
  • John Aloisi (Standard Liege and Antwerp)
  • Steven Blair (Racing Mechelen)
  • Brendon Santalab (Oostende and Sint-Truiden)
  • Adam Griffiths (Oostende)
  • Jason van Blerk (Sint-Truiden)
  • James Troisi (Zulte Waregem)
  • Zlatko Arambasic (Mechelen and Oostende)
  • Alex Brosque (Westerlo)
  • Jason Polak (Kortrijk)
  • Vilson Knezevic (Beerschot)
  • Milan Blagojevic (Beerschot)
  • Jason Culina (Beerschot)
  • John Maisano (Westerlo)
  • Clayton Zane (Anderlecht)
  • Nikita Rukavytsya (KSV Roeselare)
  • Panagiotis Armenakas (KSV Roeselare and Zulte Waregem)
  • Tony Vidmar (Beerschot)
  • Vlado Bozinovski (Club Brugge)
  • Rodrigo Palomino (KSV Waregem and RRC Tournaisien)
  • Steven Bozinovski (Oostende)
  • Hayden Foxe (Mechelen)
  • Ross Aloisi (K Boom FC)
  • Frank Talia (Royal Antwerp)
  • Zeljko Babic (Sint-Truiden)
  • George Timotheou (Zulte Waregem)
  • Michael Turnbull (Standard Liege)