AC Milan have been one of the most successful teams in the world. They have won seven Champions League titles, 18 Serie A titles, 5 Coppa Italia titles, and many more. If I ask you, apart from Italy, which nationalities AC Milan and its loyal fans always liked? The answers popping in your head would be rather obvious. It would be Dutch, thanks to Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Jaap Stam among others. Then another answer would be Brazil. The samba flair of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Leonardo, Pato. Some would even mention Sweden due to Milan’s legendary trio of Nordahl, Gren, and Liedholm. Add Ibrahimovic to that as well.
However, if I ask you to recall the names of Belgian players to don the Rossoneri jersey, you’d probably struggle to answer. Only five Belgian players have played for AC Milan since its inception. Today, we’re going to take a look at a certain Belgian, who could have been one of the greatest players in Milan’s century-long history.
This is the story of Louis Van Hege, nicknamed ‘Pallido Saettante’ which means the ‘Pale Lightning’. Louis Van Hege was born on 8th May 1889 at Uccle, Belgium. He started his footballing career with Belgian side Union SG in 1906. His stats weren’t great but his abilities used to attract attention from foreign clubs. He only has 15 goals from 42 games he played for Union SG. However, during a friendly match between Italian giants AC Milan and Union SG in 1910 (which the Belgian side won 2-0), people were shocked to see such skill, dribbling, and pace from Van Hege. AC Milan’s club president Piero Pirelli did everything in his hand to bring the Belgian to Italy and gave him a starting spot in the team.
Quickly, Van Hege (also called Luigi) took the Italian football by storm with his dazzling pace and dribbling. People weren’t used to watching these kinds of skills and Luigi quickly won them over. During those times, players used to stop and then dribble past the opponent slowly. Luigi used to just run past the opponent with his pace. This earned him the nickname “Pallido Saettante” which means Pale Lightning. Milan weren’t the most dominant force in Italy at that time and had last won Serie A in 1907. Luigi managed to make Milan a strong side in the league. Apart from dribbling, his hold-up play, and playmaking skills are amazing as well. He used to attract opponents to make way for his teammates to run into scoring positions.
He was so good that he managed to score a whopping 98 goals from 90 matches in his seven-year career at Milan. In between, 2-3 years, football was non-existent due to the first world war. So between 1910 and 1915, Van Hege racked up 17 goals every season. He was also made captain of his team. He scored five goals in a match four times and four goals in a match three times. In 1915, Gazzetta dello Sport organized a referendum, and Luigi was elected the most popular player in the league.
However, some things just aren’t meant to be. In 1917, amidst war, hundreds and thousands of men were called by their respective countries to fight for their nation. Louis Van Hege was called up by the Belgian Army to fight for their nation. The Belgian, without any hesitation, joined his national army.
Gazzetta dello Sport wrote: “The talented Belgian football player, known and appreciated by all Italian football fans, leaves for Lyon, where he will undergo a final military visit and then join the small and valiant Belgian army operating in the Yser area. Called only in these days to serve, the strong and loyal sportsman leaves without delay or hesitation, leaving behind a crowd of admirers and friends who accompany him with the most sincere wish on his return to his still free homeland.
From our pitches disappears [...] the most beautiful footballer among the circle of national and foreign "classics" who have spent ten years here on the grounds of a hundred Italian cities. And it is a great loss for the national sport because the local elements, especially the young people, still had a lot to learn from Van Hege's class.”
After the war, Luigi was called up by Belgium’s national team for the 1920 Olympics. He helped Belgium win the gold at the Olympics. Four years later, Van Hege retired from football. Eight years after his retirement, he represented Belgium at the Olympics once again (not the summer one, the winter one) in the two-man bobsleigh competition. He finished ninth in the competition. He remained close to Union SG and was even their vice-chairman for 11 years. He passed away in his hometown at the age of 86 in 1975. If not for the 1st World War, Luigi could have continued his hot form and would have become the best player in the world.