Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Belgian footballing mini-pilgrimage, April 2013

On April Fool's Day 2013, I jetted* out to Belgium to visit a friend who is currently living in the city of Leuven. Anthony Gallagher and I are long time acolytes of the game and will watch a match anywhere we can whenever we can - and his current Erasmus placement afforded us an opportunity to add to our last experience of European football.

Last season, we went to watch De Klassieker - Feyenoord v. Ajax - in Rotterdam, a game which produced a thrilling 4-2 scoreline in favour of the hosts. It was an incredible game, and one that gave us a taste for treks to the continent. Anto had already seen his 'local' side Oud-Herverlee Leuven in action when I arrived, so I was keen to see them play too.

Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, we only managed to see one game in the end and it didn't involve OHL: we went to see 
Anderlecht v. Genk, the opening game of the 2012/13 Belgian Pro League championship play-offs (the play-off system they use, it has to be said, is the most convoluted format ever devised in the history of footballing competition - the explanation on a blog entitled Uneven Bounce is both hilarious and mind-boggling).

However, in total we visited three different stadiums during my five day visit to Belgium.

The Constant Vanden Stock stadium


While the game ended in defeat for Anderlecht, it did allow us to see the Constant Vanden Stock stadium where they play their home matches. Located in Brussels in Astrid Park, this arena boasts a current seating capacity of 21,500. According to, an excellent online resource for information on footballing stadia, Anderlecht's home ground was not considered as a host venue for Euro 2000 because it failed to meet the minimum capacity threshold of 30,000. 

This, to me, is a great shame as it was quite a sight in the middle of Brussels. Astrid Park is small and is located in the heart of the cityscape but the parkland around the stadium allows it to offset the surrounding buildings - the CVS fits in rather than stands out, which is unusual for the home of a club as big as Anderlecht, who are 31 time Belgian league champions and look set to make it 32 this season, despite the results of their opening two play-off games (they followed the reverse to Genk with a 0-0 draw away to Standard Liège).

What is even more impressive is the inside of the stadium - from the outside, you wouldn't imagine it to be so grand. The steepness of the tiers makes one feel as if they could fall over the edge and onto the pitch. It looks like it could hold more than the official figure of 21,500.

We had an excellent view of proceedings and I got some decent pictures. A Jekyll and Hyde performance from Anderlecht saw them dominate the first half. Genk's 4-4-2 system was overrun by the 4-2-3-1 of the hosts, who looked to stretch the Genk backline so they could hit their big front-man Tom De Sutter (the Belgian Chris Sutton) with early crosses. 

De Sutter scored 11 times during the regular season but he isn't their usual starting striker - 17 goal Congolese hitman Dieumerci Mbokani was serving part of his four game suspension after he kicked out at Jeroen Simaeys in a cup game against, ironically, Genk back in March. Truth be told, while it was rash from Mbokani, the Genk vice-captain made a bit of a meal of it. Mbokani's track record for indiscipline doesn't help - while on loan at Wolfsburg in 2011 he was banned for life from the DR Congo national side for faking an injury.

At any rate, he wasn't missed in the first half as Anderlecht tore through a strangely lacklustre Genk side. The Argentine midfielder Lucas Biglia was pulling all the strings, Anderlecht's skipper always composed in possession, while Demy De Zeeuw was doing his best to impress the onlooking Dutch national coach Louis Van Gaal with a barnstorming display in behind De Sutter. He was also a part of the high pressing Anderlecht did so well in the first half, which reduced Genk to quick breakaways that ultimately came to nothing.

I also managed to capture this incredible piece of skill by De Zeeuw on my phone to keep a deep cross in play in the first half - it was similar in execution to Johan Cruyff's legendary 'impossible goal':

Yet, despite all their excellent play, Anderlecht could only score one goal in the first half - centre-back Bram Nuytinck nodding home from Oleksandr Yakovenko's cross. Anderlecht seemed to return from the interval thinking the game was over. This despite the fact that Genk had managed to escape with a 2-2 draw in the league meeting here in September, while Anderlecht had conceded another two in Genk's Cristal Arena in December - though they still claimed a 4-2 win on that occasion.

Add in the Belgian Cup semi-final defeat over two legs (the tie ended 1-1 on aggregate, but Genk won 7-6 on penalties) and it is fair to say that Anderlecht should have known that Genk were capable of turning the game around, despite their poor first half showing.

Anderlecht, though, stopped doing all the things they had done with gusto in the first half - the pressing, the incisive passing and the penetrating crosses. De Sutter was eventually isolated as moves broke down in midfield, with the urgency of De Zeeuw petering out and the composure of Biglia descending into complacency.

The full-backs stopped overlapping, which had been a feature of Anderlecht's attacks in the first-half, particularly through right-back Denis Odoi who had caused chaos down Genk's left-side. Genk began to get a foothold in midfield and gradually started pushing the home side back, though they lacked the guile to cut through them in the way they themselves had been shredded in the first half. In the end, it was with set-pieces that Genk found their way back into the game.

It is worth noting here that all three goals in the game were scored at our end, so we got to experience the joy of scoring and the despair of concession close at hand. As it ended up, the second feeling became the lingering one as Kara Mbodj rose highest to meet a Benjamin De Ceulaer corner to equalise. The centre-back lifted his t-shirt up to reveal an image - I don't know what it is, but if anybody who watched the highlights can tell me that would be great.

The winning goal came from a free-kick which was curled into the heart of the six yard box. It was initially won well by Nuytinck under pressure from Mbodj, but it only went as far as substitute Julien Gorius who nodded it across to Jelle Vossen, who duly headed home his 18th goal of the season. It turns out I am two days older than the Genk skipper, who already has 78 goals in 148 games for his club. He had taken some stick from the Anderlecht fans after being muscled off the ball near our end earlier in the game, so this would have been a sweet moment for him.

And to add insult to injury for Anderlecht, they saw an 87th minute penalty - awarded for a foul on Mathías Suarez by Mbodj (Mathías is no Luis, but he's in the same mould and was a handful throughout) - saved by László Köteles. Nuytinck, who of course had given his side the lead in the first half, dropped to his knees and put his face in his hands after seeing his effort pushed wide of the right-hand post. It is a poor start to the play-offs for Anderlecht, but they remain top after Zuite-Waregem drew 1-1 against Lokeren in their opening game.

The Stadion Den Dreef

Yet the CVS wasn't the first stadium I laid eyes upon after touching down in Belgium - that honour belongs to the Stadion Den Dreef, which is the home of Oud-Hervelee Leuven. Anto lives in accommodation just around the corner from this modest arena, so we passed right by it every single day. He has had the honour of attending a game here whereas I had to make due with admiring it from the outside. The capacity is 9,313.

OHL remind me of UCD - like the Students, their stadium is located not too far from the university with which they share (at least part of) a name. They also tend to operate solely in the bottom half of the table and, like UCD, have become accustomed to defying pessimistic expectations in recent seasons.

OHL's success in avoiding relegation last season was the first time any team from the city of Leuven remained in the top-flight for more than a single campaign, and their tenth place finish in the regular season this year puts them in contention for a Europa League place via the play-offs - one win and one loss from their opening two games currently leaves them a point adrift of table-topping Sporting Charleroi, who defeated Leuven by a comprehensive 3-0 scoreline.

Interestingly, the club in its current guise was formed as recently as 2002. There were three clubs operating in Leuven before this: Zwarte Duivels Oud-HeverleeKoninklijke Daring Club Leuven and Koninklijke Stade Leuven. The aim of uniting the clubs was to improve the standard of football in the city and the result was eventual promotion to the second division in 2004/05 via a play-off victory and, seven years later, a second division title to bring top-flight football back to Leuven for the first time since 1950. Given the much publicised furore surrounding the footballing situation in Galway at the minute, the OH Leuven example highlights what a merging of resources can do for a locality.

The Bosuilstadion

The last stadium we visited was the Bosuilstadion, home to Royal Antwerp. This was slightly further out of the way as we had to travel to the heart of Antwerp and then take a number five tram out to the stadium - however, it was well worth the journey just to see the home of Belgium's first professional club (signified by the matricule number one on the crest). The stadium capacity is 16,649.

Though it may be hard to tell from the second picture above, the gate to the pitch was wide open. I could have sauntered right onto the playing surface and nobody would have been any the wiser (though there was a sprinkler on - there may have been somebody supervising it who could have had the power to soak me at a moment's notice). We decided not step onto the pitch; there is something hallowed about professional pitches, I didn't want to commit footballing sacrilege when I still had a jersey to buy.

Closer to home, Royal Antwerp are well known as the feeder club who have a link with Manchester United. The second picture above is from a billboard below the private boxes behind the goal (I was brave enough to venture that far). It is a link which Antwerp are evidently proud of as there is a similar sign on the side of the outer wall of the stadium.

The list of former Manchester United players who cut their teeth here is impressive and includes Republic of Ireland internationals John O'Shea and Darron Gibson (he'll hopefully return to the fold sometime in the near future) as well as players  like Luke Chadwick, Fraizer Campbell, Dong Fangzhuo, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Phil Bardsley, Ryan Shawcross, Jonny Evans and, of course, Ronnie Wallwork and Danny Higginbotham. Oddly enough, in the case of the latter two players, both received lengthy bans from football whilst on loan in Belgium for an incident involving a referee.

Yet despite their status as Belgium's oldest club, 'The Great Old' have very little silverware to show for their 133 year existence. They have only been national champions four times in their history and have only won the Belgian Cup twice. Their last trophy came in the form of a second division title in the 1999/2000 season but within three years they were relegated again - they have remained in the second division since. 

Their greatest nearly moment came in the 1993 Cup Winners' Cup when they reached the final at Wembley. There they faced Italian side Parma, who were also competing in their first European final. In an ironic twist, Parma boasted defender Georges Grün in their ranks, a Belgian international who had won three league titles in Belgium with Anderlecht as well as the Belgian Cup and the Belgian Super Cup twice each. He also won the Coppa Italia with Parma in '92 (victory in the '93 Cup Winners' Cup would prove to be the last major trophy of his career).

Antwerp equalised within two minutes of falling behind to an early Lorenzo Minotti header, Belgian striker Francis 'Cisse' Severeyns finishing coolly when put through by tournament top-scorer Alexandre Czerniatynsk on 11 minutes. Sadly for Walter Meeuws' side, that goal would be as good as it got as Parma re-took the lead on the half-hour when Alessandro Melli headed home Marco Oslo's cross.

It was the second time Antwerp goalkeeper Stevan Stojanović - who captained Red Star Belgrade to European Cup success in 1991 - had dealt poorly with a Parma ball into the box. His lack of conviction on both occasions not only cost his side two goals but, ultimately, the trophy as well. Stefano Cuoghi  sprung the offside trap in the 84th minute to score a third goal and add some gloss to the scoreline. This remains the last time a Belgian side has reached the final of a UEFA club competition. 

Interestingly, though, Antwerp's run to the final began in Northern Ireland - the Belgians were drawn against IFA side Glenavon in the first round and drew the first leg 1-1 in Mourneview Park. The return leg in the Bosuilstadion also ended 1-1 and when extra-time failed to separate the two teams, it went to penalties - which Antwerp won 3-1.

Visiting the three stadiums of three teams at different points of their varying histories makes me realise what football is all about: the next game. Because without the next game, there can be no history to look back on and nothing to look forward to - and no reason to make any sort of footballing pilgrimage at all.

Thankfully, there is always the next game. I'm already looking forward the next pilgrimage.

*it was actually an Aer Lingus Airbus, most likely an A320-200 model - not that I know anything about airplanes

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