“Are you getting up or what?” Danny wasn’t happy on the other end of the phone. It seemed that Kenny had forgotten to change the time on his mobile from German to Belgium time, or so he told me. Ten minutes later we were downstairs, raring to go. It was 9am. Whilst we were awake, Brussels certainly wasn’t. Tourists gave us a wide berth as we marched across the old town wielding our croissants with menace. Street cleaners were clearing away the detritus from the remnants of a lively Saturday night and the noise of their work echoed through our collective hangovers. Was it too early for a beer? Despite all the rules in the EFW charter, about being awake on foreign soil for more than 30 minutes and passing open drinking establishments, we stoically continued on our journey We had a train to catch, heading South East from the capital to Liège, the economic capital of Wallonia.
Today was the day of the ‘Hate Derby’. The rivalry between the two biggest teams in the French-speaking province of Wallonia isn’t in the league of any team and Anderlecht but it has still been spicy enough in the past few years for the Belgium police to class this as a ‘Bubble’ game and thus the few hundred Zebras fans to be bused direct from South Brussels to the ground.
Liège was the only venue I hadn’t visited during the fantastic summer of Euro2000 and in the past decade it had somehow eluded my attentions. But few could ignore the outstanding architecture of the Liège-Guillemins railway station. For those with a bit of an interest in the work of Santiago Calatrava will see on first sight that the €300 million new structure is up their with his best work alongside the terminal at Bilbao Airport, the Cuitat de las Arts i les Ciences in Valencia and Turning Torso in Malmö.
“Snap out of it Stuart” Kenny brought me back to the present by wafting an open bottle of Orval (“who is your very best friend, Stuart?”), enticing me onto the waiting bus that would take us along the banks of the Meuse River to the Stade Maurice Dufranse. Despite the short hand only just reaching 11, and the game some three hours away, the area around the ground was a hub of activity. Supporters bars were opening up, cranking out the tunes and turning on the TV’s. It seemed the biggest show on Belgium TV on a Sunday morning was a programme called “September revisited” which was essentially a round-up of all the best goals in Europe from the past month. Relatively interesting at 11am but by 1.30pm when it was still on, it got a tad boring. Not that we were particularly interested in the TV as we had found a home in the Bois d’Avroy, one of the bars opposite the stadium. Whilst the rest of the Standard fans were tucking into the Jupiler, we had asked for the “special stuff”. Remember when you were a teenager when you went into the Video shop and asked what they had “under the counter”? Well, that’s how we felt as the barman gave us a wink, and plonked four bottles of Chimay on the bar. Yes, it was 3 hours until kick off but we could handle 8.5% of Belgium’s finest?
Despite hundreds of fans flooding into the bar, service had been nailed down to a tee. A group of young girls roamed the room, looking for vulnerable beer-free fans and pounced on them to take their orders. We all had our favourites and were willing to wait that extra time until they could serve us. Outside the bar fans had taken over the road and the girls out there had their wares on brazen full show. Girls, carrying trays of €2 beers in the middle of the street? What will they think of next.
We were joined by Mark, a Standard die-hard who gave us the low-down on the finer points of watching the game (and the fans) in Belgium. It seemed that the performance of the national side in recent years had given the game a boost and crowds were once again returning to clubs. This game was deemed a sell out, but it appeared that Charleroi had only been allowed a few hundred of the seats in the away end for their own protection.
The Stade Maurice Dufrasne was a cash-free zone. The Munt is the currency in these parts and we were munted millionaires, ready to treat all our new friends with our pile of plastic coins. Alas, bizarre stadium regulations mean that you cannot take any of Belgium’s finest treats into the seating area. I can understand the problems a beer may cause, but does a hot chip really constitute a weapon these days?
The stadium was rocking and as the teams emerged a huge St. George’s Cross was held up at the far end to welcome us English fans. Nice touch by the fans I thought to say hello. Crank the atmosphere up to eleven – it’s match time!
Standard Liège 2 Sporting Charleroi 2 – Stade Maurice Dufrasne – Sunday 20th October 2013
Standard came into the game top of the league with nine wins from their opening ten games and a 100% record at home. The visitors were mid-table and had struggled for points on the road. Nobody really expected any other result that a home win, surely? Well, apart from the few hundred Sporting fans who went nuts when our old friend from Lens David “The Chicken” Pollet opened the scoring against the run of play in the 37th minute. What who Ray Winstone do in this situation? Apart from growing a ten foot tall head and spinning round like someone possessed he would have backed the draw. And that is exactly what I would have done, apart from the fact I had a little snooze. A combination of a late late night, a few Chimay’s and the warm sun on my face provided ideal conditions for 40 winks.
I was wide awake, of course, when Jelle Van Damme (the more timid of the Van Damme brothers) equalised on 65 minutes and didn’t miss Dewaest put Charleroi in the lead with ten minutes left. Oh no, you wont catch me sleeping on the job. Even when Ezekiel scored in the final minute to salvage a draw for Standard, I was up, fists pumping with the best of them. A draw wasn’t in the plan for the league leaders and the fans trooped out into the Sunday afternoon sunshine rooing the wasteful nature of their first half display.
We headed to the Fans bar in the stadium, where Deaksy invented a new game involving three Euro coins which, rest assured, will be the biggest selling children’s game this Christmas. A trip next door to the shop produced a big fat zero on the football socks scale, but a ten on the football club ruler one before we headed back into the old town for a few local ales, some oversized meatballs in a thick sauce and some dancing in a Turkish Tapas bar with a wedding party all before 8pm. The night could have gone seriously downhill from this point so we took the easy option of a carrier bag full of plantain crisps (Despite living on his own, Kenny still hasn’t got the hang of shopping) and pocket full of Belgium beer for the train ride back to Brussels.
The weekend drew to a close in a familiar way – lively debate about the best ever player to wear a headband and the like – over a small beer or two. Belgium had delivered on almost every level for us. Would we be back? Could we be back? Should we be back? A resounding YES from the quartet of Englishmen.