Royal Antwerp 1 Westerlo 1

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Royal Antwerp 1 Westerlo 1 (29/03/2013)

There are times when the word “cold” doesn’t quite feel sufficient, but without wishing to add a post-watershed adjective, it’ll have to suffice to sum up my initial memory of the match at Antwerp’s De Bosuil stadium.

The other reaction would be to think that as much as the “against modern football” campaign has its heart in the right place, a trip to a ground like De Bosuil would make them  think that sometimes a degree of modernisation isn’t such a bad thing. I liked the ground, and without doubt the two older side stands give the ground a huge amount of character, but character alone can’t paper over the cracks – ironic really given that papering, or painting to be exact, over that cracks seems to have been Royal Antwerp’s maintenance policy since about the 1930s.

The stadium itself lends itself to a sense of anticipation as you approach from the nearby tram stop. The tram trip in was a pleasure in itself. Not only is there little that feels more continental than tram travel, it also gave me a favourite Flemish word. Appearing next to a red bulb on the wall was the word “Noodalarm”, as if the tram flashes a warning should a streaker appear on board.

The tram stop was in view of the floodlights. Proper old-fashion corner pylons, unfeasibly tall, shining like spotlights onto the stage below. Built in the same year as Wembley, De Bosuil also has a classic approach to the ground, with two lines of trees with a pond between forming a rather softer face that the concrete walkways of Wembley Way.

Like the old Wembley, it’s a ground that probably looks better from a distance, as from up close you see just how much the ground is crumbling. The tree-lined approach leads to the rear of the main stand, with an awkward “cornflake packet on its side” 60s/70s extension jutting out the back. Beneath this is the club bar and shop, heated by a heater so powerful it could strip paint from the walls.

Keeping paint on the walls was clearly a difficult job, as throughout the ground it looked like re-painting had once been a Forth Bridge style continuous job, if only they hadn’t stopped bothering since when flares were fashionable. If this clearly once proud frontage hinted at the place being left to rot, stepping into the stairwell area pretty much confirmed it. Fans in England may moan about boring bare breeze-block walls, but the ones here looked like they were from a building abandoned in perhaps the 1940s, crumbling away with dark mildew like stains and scrapes.

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Emerging into the main stand seats, things didn’t get much better. The walls and roof looked like they were built from materials shanty-towns had discarded. The seats, not surprisingly, were bench seats. Probably dating right back 90 years to the ground’s opening, these were liberally splattered in multiple coats of paint, with a curious numbering system which didn’t appear to be based on sequential numbers.

At the front of the seating tier was a small row of what Royal Antwerp term “lodges” – a kind of partitioned-off row of seating areas for two people. Executive boxes they most certainly are not, as beyond that extra small bit of privacy, the luxury doesn’t extend beyond having a slightly larger bench to sit on.

In front is a paddock of terrace with few crush barriers and not too many fans, perhaps due to the high fencing at the front. The lack of ticket checking also makes me suspect a few pay terrace prices and watch from elsewhere. The roof, an old style one propped with many view-blocking columns, has a tv gantry crude plonked in front of the roof’s middle gable, and I’d suspect the tv crew would want danger money to be perched up there.

Opposite is an equally old stand. This one is a vast bank of bench seating, used as a terrace by Antwerp’s more vocal element, with the rear half covered by another propped roof. In the centre of this stand is a tunnel, no doubt intended to be some kind of grand entrance, but these days just an obstruction, although it’s not as if Antwerp need the extra space currently. The roof of this stand at least looks a little less tatty, although it’s hard to imagine it’d stand up too well to closer inspection.

De Bosuil used to have two large end terraces, curving round both goals, to give the place a capacity of around 60,000. Both of these terraces have gone now, replaced by two new stands which perhaps represent the worst of new design in the way that the two sides are the worst of the old.

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To the left of the main stand is a plain and very functional single tier stand for maybe 3000 people. It has a flat column-free roof and rows of backless seats bolted onto the terrace, but it’s hardly a brave new tomorrow. A third is given over to away supporters, and the lack of home fans in the rest of it shows it hasn’t really won the affections of the Antwerp faithful either.

To the right is a stand that probably helps pay for a lot of Royal Antwerp’s expenses, but does little to add character to the ground. Two tiers of business seats, essentially short tiers of seats indoors behind glass, peer over this end of the ground, without so much as a terrace at the front to soften the high blank wall between the raised lower tier and the ground.

It’s not a horrible ground by any means. Every stand has something different, so it’s certainly an interesting venue. It just feels that the club just takes support for granted, doing nothing to make the two most popular stands better.

Maybe Belgians just don’t care about such things. Maybe it’s just looking at them with an English eye, as both would no doubt be condemned in the UK, failing nearly every safety regulation in the book, but that would be a shame. Both, with a bit (ok, a lot) of tidying up, could be absolute gems. I’d hate to see both sides replaced with stands like the modern ends, but unless they do something then even with Belgium’s more relaxed standards, their days must be numbered.

Royal Antwerp could do with a bit of tidying up as a club too. Hailing from Belgium’s second largest city, they’ve always been something of an underachiever, and have slipped into the second division, unable to escape despite having much bigger than average crowds. That they’ve been usurped in popularity by upstarts Beerschot in the south of the city must make their plight even more painful.

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Although it didn’t end badly, most of the game against promotion-chasing Westerlo was quite painful too. Commendable enthusiasm apart, Antwerp’s never-ending ability to give the ball away cheaply in good positions was causing no end of frustration to the noisy home fans. Singing away loudly in the top corner, mainly in English strangely enough, it was hard to not wonder what a fortress this place would be if packed, and fielding a strong side.

Westerlo were hardly great, and seemed to be almost waiting for Antwerp to make a mistake for them. It duly worked, with poor defending allowing a Westerlo forward to break clean through and side-foot his side into a first-half lead.

In the second half, presumably after been given something of a roasting at half time, Antwerp came out looking rather more determined, but yet again it was the same tale of mislaid passes, underhit crosses, and players being convinced they have all the time in the world, however many opposition players are around them.

It was looking like if Antwerp could score then they’d probably go on to win, but getting that goal wasn’t looking easy. It hinged on a substitution. A player went off to a chorus of boos from the home side with 15 minutes left. Whether it was for him playing badly, or an unpopular decision to remove him wasn’t clear, but it wasn’t as if he’d done much worse than the rest to warrant such condemnation. It worked though. A high cross from the right found its way to the sub coming in from the left of the penalty box, and his high first-time shot into the roof of the net put the home side on level terms.

This actually prompted Westerlo into a spell of attacking, but they’d been coasting for too long and couldn’t step up the gear or two they needed. They went closest with a shot just wide and another turned over the bar, but it was certainly the home fans going home happier, with the late goal to warm them on the journey home, and my, did we all need that.

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