« You shouldn’t compare André Piters to Garrincha, but he’s the only one I know who has the spontaneity of Brazilians »
– Jean Vincent, ex-international and manager FC Nantes
When the Rouches play a friendly against Portsmouth in May 1951, a 21-year-old tester from Herve steals the show. Despite a 4:1 defeat, everyone in the stands is wildly enthusiastic about the pocket striker among the visitors from Liège. « Portsmouth had a strong team including Harris (ed. 194 goals in 479 games) and Dickinson (ed. MBE and 764 games for Portsmouth), but during that first half I probably scored the most beautiful goal in my entire career: a bicycle kick from thirty meters. » André Piters can’t hide his smile. « After the game when we were having dinner with the team, I wanted to treat my fellow players to a drink, but since I was short on cash as a youngster, I asked the chairman if he could advance me money. “What, is the money I gave you gone already?” Rassart replied while I was eating. “You continue to eat your spinach … Popeye.” » A name that would not stick to him till the very end.
Born in a miner‘s family in Herve in 1931, André is the third in a family of six children. Ever playful as a child, André joins the local Royal Herve Football Club at the age of 12. Five years later he already makes his debut in the first team. A debut that wouldn’t go unnoticed as he scores the four goals in the 4: 2 win over FC Niel. It secures him a spot for the rest of his early career at Herve. While doing his military service in Bressoux, he is invited by the Rouches to travel to England for a couple of exhibition games against teams such as Portsmouth and West Ham. He successfully convinces the management during his trial, and a transfer for 12,500 euros gets concluded.
From a third division team, André Piters ends up in a team with legends such as Guy Thys, but also other Hall of Fame players such as Fernand Massay, Denis Houf and Jean Mathonet. However, despite the visibly talented group, Standard is struggling to find the right pace after the second world war. Similarly, André finds it hard to secure a spot in the team. The first two to three seasons his role was limited to a luxury substitute and it almost came to a transfer to FC Sérésien, which then came out in the third division. « I remember telling the representatives of Seraing that I was not a third-division player, but a future international. Popeye laughs. I can imagine what they must have thought of that little guy who played with the reserves more often than with the first team. But for me it was the signal to work hard that summer and show what I could really add to the team. »
And so he did. After a strong list of friendly games, Piters’ real breakthrough in 1954 also heralded the breakthrough of Standard. No more fights against relegation ! With his fellow strikers Joseph Givard, Jean Jadot, Denis Houf and Jean Mathonet, he won the cup under the direction of André Riou (1953-1954) and later with Geza Kalocsai two championship titles (1957-1958 and 1960-1961).
« My best memory is linked to the most unlikely goal I scored against Ghent. The Buffalos could count on no fewer than 7 internationals at the time and drew up a particularly competitive team. With a 1:2 lead (ed. two goals from Piters), I got the ball on our half. After dribbling seven to eight players, and under pressure from the fans, I planned to cross the ball. But at the last moment I suddenly made a body feint and came face to face with the impressive goalkeeper Seghers. I got ready to play the ball wide and put it on the wrong track. After that goal, four Ghent players came to congratulate me. The whole audience was enthusiastic about my goal. », says the Tahamata of the fifties.
But it wasn’t fun and games the entire time. The creative artist found it difficult to click with new coach Geza Kalocsai. The Hungarian was big on authority and hierarchy, hence the partnership was deemed to create tension. « I still remember the 1959 match against Sporting Lisbon. During half-time, a furious Kalocsai kicked in the door and attacked me directly: “You, Mr Piters, have to stop dribbling like crazy. If I see you dribble again, I will take you off the pitch.” At the start of the second half, I told myself to please the coach for once. The game barely started when Christian Piot handed me the ball. In the corner of my eye I see someone standing on the flank, and I do not hesitate and immediately give a beautiful pass of 30 meters. To my great surprise, there is no response from the player, and I get quickly annoyed. I even see the man throwing things in the crowd. Looking closer, it turns out to be the ice cream sales man who didn’t realize that the match had started again. » The Rouches won the game 3:0 and qualified for the quarter finals against the mighty Stade Reims.
After winning at Sclessin, Standard loses the return game. « That remains my worst memory, he looks back on that period. For that return match, Kalocsai decided to give us mental training that lasted longer than the match. We were completely drained when we started the match, and at the first goal, we just fell apart. It remains incredibly unfortunate because we could have reached the final, and go on to win it. »
That being said, it would be one of just a few disappointments during his successful time at Standard. He completes his ten-year stay at Sclessin with another title during his last season at the club In the end he clocked in to 56 goals and countless assists in 208 official games, complemented by about 100 friendlies.
After his period at Sclessin, Popeye went to Olympic Charleroi. « I stayed there for two seasons and had the pleasure of playing with Rik Coppens. For me, Rik was the most complete footballer in Belgium at the time: dribbler pur sang, jumping power, football insight, he had it all, and was probably one of the best strikers in the world. The fans were crazy about us. Rik the dribbler and I with my famous body feints. Whenever our goalkeeper had the ball, Rik instructed him to throw it at me. He knew I would dribble three men and then hand him the ball on a golden platter so he could score. It was a phenomenally beautiful time. »
The Coppens-Piters duo would also be very successful internationally. At the World Cup, against Iceland, Belgium were awarded a penalty at 6:1. Rather than shooting directly at the goal, Rik gave a soft pass to the right, where Piters came running in, and consequently gave the ball back to Coppens. The desperate goalkeeper no longer knew where to look and before he knew what had happened , Belgium scored the 7th goal of the match. Thirty years later, a certain Johan Cruyff imitated the action. The penalty could not have been more typical for the two artists. André would eventually be called up 23 times with the Red Devils, for which he scored 7 times. His international debut came against the Netherlands in a derby of the low countries in April 1955. Several injuries meant that he regularly had to stay aside, and his international career never completely broke through.
In 1963 he made the switch abroad to play in Holland. « The four seasons at Fortuna Geelen are one fantastic memory. », He says after his career. « The management of Geelen had assembled a team of ex-internationals. The average age was around 30, but our results were excellent. Among other things, we won the Dutch Cup against The Hague, trained by a certain Ernst Happel who would later lead the Rouches. » Speaking of Standard coaches, Piters’ teammate was a certain Cor Van der Hart, who would manage the Rouches in the 1970s. Every week, Piters entertained the crowd. The Dutch media was in awe of his talent. “At the age of 35 Piters plays as Stanley Matthews (ed. The English international was elected European footballer of the year in 1956) at the peak of his career.”
Popeye would finish his career at a lower level as a player-manager. First at FC Blegny with whom he forced the promotion to fourth division, and then La Calamine, Esneux, SRU Verviers to finally finish back again at Blegny again where he still played at the age of 40+.
André “Popeye” Piters left us in 2014, at 83 years of age, but his reputation lives on to this very day.
(c) Marc Coudijzer – May 2020
Birth: January 18th 1931, in Herve
Deceased: October 23rd 2014
Affiliated at Standard: 11 August 1951 – 16 May 1961
Trophies with Standard: 3 (2x Belgian Champion (1958, 1961), 1x Belgian FA Cup (1954)
International games / goals: 23 / 7
1944 – 1948
R. Herve F.C. (32)
1948 – 1951
1951 – 1961
1961 – 1963
1963 – 1967
1967 – 1969
1969 – 1970
1970 – 1971
1971 – 1974
1974 – 1976
R. Herve F.C. (32)
Royal Standard Club Liégeois
R.O.C. Charleroi (246)
Fortuna Geelen (NDL)
R. Blegny F.C. (236)
R.F.C. Union La Calamine (526)
R. Esneux Sport (406)
S.R.U. Verviers (34)
R. Blegny F.C. (236)
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup