The Jupiler Pro League in Belgium is no different from the other leagues across Europe. At the end of the season, the best individuals are nominated for the player of the year, with the league’s finest performer taking home the award. However, in Belgium there are a couple of other awards which are unique amongst their peers, Le Soulier d’Ébène and Le Lion Belge. Le Soulier d’Ébène (The Ebony Shoe) is awarded annually to the best African or African origin player in the Belgian Pro League, and Le Lion Belge (The Belgian Lion) rewards the best Maghrebian (or Maghrebian origin) footballer in Belgium in the three national divisions.
Le Soulier d’Ébène awards were founded by Cerina de Rosen, alongside Fely Samuna, Bernard Malaba Tshienda, Eugene Bunga and Moro Mukota in association with the non-profit organization African Culture Promotion. The awards emerged out of the disaffection of a group of African students who grew tired of seeing African players being sidelined for individual honours. Their awards were set up to redress the imbalance.
De Rosen explains the objective behind the award’s creation: “We launched it inspired by the Golden Shoe that already existed. We observed with great regret the virtual absence and lack of visibility of the African football players nominated for the Golden Shoe.” As well as sport, the awards recognised special achievement in other fields. “Its objective was to enhance our community and to put in the spotlight all the people who have worked to put Africa forward in multiple fields such as science, literature, art, studies, cinema, economics. The trophy that rewarded these different areas was named ‘Les Dunia’, and for football: Le Soulier d’Ebène.”
The panel is composed of the coaches of Belgium’s top three divisions, the Belgian national team manager, sports journalists from the main television and radio stations and the country’s print media, and honorary judges. The process to crown the winner takes place in two rounds. The first round, which takes place after at least three quarters of the season, determines the five nominees. The vote of the second round closes a few days before the awards ceremony, with the winner announced on the evening of the ceremony itself.
Belgium has a diverse population, similar to other Western European countries. This is made up of a wide range of nationalities from across Europe, Asia and Africa. Moroccans form the largest group of non-western immigrants, with around 220,000 in Belgium. At over 4 percent of the country’s population, the Moroccan population in Belgium is proportionally the highest in Europe.
Belgium’s only major overseas colony in the country’s history was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the 1870s, just before the onset of the Scramble for Africa, European exploration of the Congo was first carried out, led by Henry Morton Stanley under the sponsorship of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold formally acquired rights to the Congo territory at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 and made the land his private property. In 1908 the Belgian parliament voted in favour of annexing the Free State from Leopold as a Belgian colony, named the Belgian Congo. The country finally achieved independence on 30 June 1960 under the name Republic of the Congo, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Belgium have had a very humane stance towards immigration from their former colony having welcomed thousands of Congolese migrants since the 1960s.
Moubarak “Mbark” Boussoufa is the most successful player in the award’s history, with three wins. Born in Amsterdam, Boussoufa played for the youth teams of Ajax in his homeland, and Chelsea, before starting his senior career with Gent. In three years with De Buffalos, the midfielder scored 14 goals in 59 appearances. In his final season, he picked up the Belgian Young Footballer of the Year, Belgian Footballer of the Year and the first of his Soulier d’Ébène awards. After moving to Anderlecht, the Moroccan international won two league titles with the Brussels based club, as well as Le Soulier d’Ébène two more times in 2009 and 2010.
Another player to have won the award more than once is current Manchester City and Belgium national team captain Vincent Kompany. Although he was born in Brussels, his father Pierre was a Congolese immigrant to Belgium and now serves as his agent. The towering defender started his career in his homeland with Anderlecht, and despite only spending three seasons there, had an illustrious time at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium.
In his debut season the defender made 44 club appearances, helped Anderlecht win the league, represented his national team for the first time, and won the Belgian Young Professional Footballer of the Year as well as the first of his Soulier d’Ébène awards. Despite missing out on the league title the following season, it was still a success on a personal level for Kompany, retaining both the Young Professional Footballer of the Year and his Soulier d’Ébène award, as well as becoming Belgian Professional Footballer of the Year.
Other Premier League stars to have received Le Soulier d’Ébène include Marouane Fellaini who won the award in 2008 thanks to his title winning performances with Standard Liège. Fellaini was born to Moroccan parents from Tangier and brought up in Brussels. His father, Abdellatif, was a former goalkeeper for Raja Casablanca and Hassania Agadir who signed for Racing Mechelen but was unable to play as his former Moroccan club refused to release his paperwork. In recognition of receiving his award, Fellaini said: “I am Belgian and proud of being [so] but I am also proud of my Moroccan origins and I thank all the people who helped me arrive where I am today, like my family and Standard.”
This summer, Romelu Lukaku has been making headlines following his £75 million move to Manchester United. Born in Antwerp to Congolese parents, his father, Roger Lukaku, played professional football and was capped at international level by Zaire. Despite being 24 years of age, Lukaku will be entering his ninth full season as a professional having made his debut for Anderlecht in the 2008/09 season.
The following year the striker made his mark in the first team, finishing with a league winner’s medal and the golden boot, but missed out on Le Soulier d’Ébène to teammate Boussoufa. The next season, Lukaku maintained his scoring touch, even though he was still in his teens. Failing to retain the league title Lukaku still won Le Soulier d’Ébène, saying: “I want to thank my family and friends first. My father was not able to win this award long ago, I wanted to dedicate [this award] to him. This is my first individual title, it’s warm to my heart, I hope my parents are proud, and I dedicate it to my father.” Roger Lukaku had finished third in the 1993/94 season while playing for RFC Seraing.
The most recent Premier League player to win the award is Michy Batshuayi of Chelsea. The striker started his professional career with Standard Liège, and in his final season with the club scored 21 goals as Les Rouches finished the regular season in first place, but lost out on the title in the playoffs to rivals Anderlecht. The current Chelsea striker didn’t end the year empty handed, though, winning Le Soulier d’Ébène.
Last season’s award was won by Youri Tielemans of Anderlecht, who joined Ligue 1 champions Monaco on a five-year deal for a fee of around €25 million in June. Tielemans has a Belgian father and a mother with Congolese roots. The midfielder’s Soulier d’Ébène makes him the ninth player of Congolese descent to win the prize making it the most successful nation in the award’s history. Even though it was the first time in five years a player from Anderlecht won, the club is still by far the most successful with a total of 10 winners coming from the Les Mauves et Blancs.
Since 2010 a similar award, created by voluntary association Voltaire, has been presented to the best Maghrebian (or Maghrebian origin) footballer in Belgium: Le Lion Belge. The panel is composed of members of the country’s sports editorial offices (written and audio-visual press) as well as members of an honorary panel. For the first two years the prize was awarded to triple Soulier d’Ébène winner Boussoufa.
The former Anderlecht player’s countrymen Soufiane Bidaoui and Mehdi Carcela won the award in 2012 and 2015 respectively, making Morocco the most successful country in the history of the awards. Tunisian Hamdi Harbaoui is the only other player to have won the award more than once, for his performances with Lokeren in 2013 and 2014. For the last two years the award has gone to Algerians. KV Mechelen’s Sofiane Hanni picked up the award alongside the Professional Footballer of the Year in 2016 before Ishak Belfodil of Standard Liège succeeded him last season.
African footballers make up a good proportion of Belgian teams, therefore both awards highlight their achievements which weren’t previously recognised in the ‘mainstream’ ceremony, which can only be positive. As founder Cerina de Rosen says: “Through these awards, we wanted to highlight all these personalities, recognise their outstanding contribution, improve representation and enhance the self-esteem of the people of our community. We needed to see role models around us.”
In the past 15 years the Golden Shoe has been won by Soulier d’Ébène winners Aruna Dindane of the Ivory Coast, Boussoufa, Kompany and Dieumerci Mbokani. This may show that awards such as Le Soulier d’Ébène and Le Lion Belge shine a greater light on players from Africa, and those of African ancestry.