from AFAS Stadion Achter Kazerne
After Tom suggested a foreign football jaunt we decided to find a cheap flight first and work backwards, neither of us being too precious about the standard of football we saw. Charleroi in Belgium was the winner, being a new country for both of us football-wise and, almost as important, world renowned for its beer.
Men and their beer-football relationship; I think there is a double sliding scale of quality of football and quality of beer enjoyed by menfolk. As the marker for football slides from good to bad and the marker for beer slides from bad to good, so the bloke changes a bit like the evolution of man pictorials – starting with your Sky Sports addicted sofa-dweller with a six pack of Carling watching the Champions League to a circumspect fellow on a crumbly terrace at Sherwood Colliery, drinking an Infinity IPA by Blue Monkey. The more refined the gentleman the worse the football and better the beer.
Our accommodation was also in Charleroi. Research for grounds beforehand was limited to the Belgian Pro League for the Saturday, all other leagues playing on the Sunday. Looking at a combination of character of ground and ability to get back after 10pm on public transport, the stand-out choice was KV Mechelen. Further compounded by Tom’s discovery of the Het Anker Brewery tour in the town,
The train from french speaking Charleroi to Dutch speaking Mechelen takes about 1 1/2 hours, going through Brussels on the way.
Mechelen is a City in Flanders, in the Flemish region of Belgium, between Brussels and Antwerp. The area has been inhabited since the 3rd century and in the 16th Century was capital of the low countries, with a booming cloth trade.
Cities in Flanders have mock names for their inhabitants – the people of Mechelen are know as Maneblussers (Moon Extinguishers) and the football club refer to themselves as such. In 1687 some inhabitants tried to put out a supposed fire in a high Gothic window of the St Rumbold’s Tower, which was actually the reflection of the moon.
Mechelen, the club, were founded in 1904. They formerly went by their French name FC Malinois. The interchange between French and Dutch in Belgium can be quite confusing. Looking for our train destination, it was a while before we realised that the trains in Charleroi refer to Mechelen as Malines, and only when you cross some kind of Dutch line in the countryside do the signs in the carriages change to the Dutch Mechelen. It was thanks to the station’s odd suffix Nekkerspoel, that I could deduce this.
The club have won the Belgian League four times and even have European silverware in the Cup Winners’ Cup, won in 1988, the last Belgian team to win a European trophy. They have however spent a lot of time in the second tier, and indeed this is only their first season back, after promotion at the first attempt, into the top flight last term. They now lie in 6th in the table.
Despite a solid pedigree behind them their ground is on the small side, holding just 16,672 spectators. Despite its small stature it is smart, with the stands close to the pitch and plenty of terracing. The ground lies behind what used to be an army barracks and the name Achter de Kazerne means just that. It dates back to 1911 but has undergone extensive remodelling since.
The visitors to the Achter de Kazerne this evening were a German speaking club. Yes, there are German speakers in Belgium – who knew? KAS Eupen were the first such to play in the Belgian top flight, gaining promotion in 2010-11. After immediate relegation they then came back up four years ago and have stayed up. The town of Eupen is only 9 miles from the German border and is the capital of Belgium’s German speaking community.
Back to the beer, Mechelen is home to the Het Anker brewery, one of Belgian’s oldest, founded in 1471. It prides itself on sticking to ancient simple recipes and never selling out to populist beers, preferring to keep their stamp of quality. The tour was fascinating, concluding with a sampling of two of their famous tipples. A bit of beer provenance enhances the taste enormously; like swatting up on a city’s history prior to a visit. The tour included tasting the raw types of barley that went into the beer, as well as the spices that flavoured them such as cumin and coriander.
The Gouden Carolus Tripel and Classic were delightful but the one I had in the attached restaurant while eating my Bittenballen, Hopsinjoor, was the best.
From the Het Anker Brewery, we went to the City square to a pub Tom singled out in his research – Makadam, an urban paradise with innumerable bottled and draft beers, enough for multiple sessions without duplication. Deep, complex and very strong beers by Kerel Brewery; an intense resinous Pink Imperial and a lighter IPA were consumed. Also a delectable Black IPA called the Brusseleir, from Brewery de la Senne amongst others were quaffed on the mezzanine floor overlooking the city square, where Mechelen fans gathered, singing and letting off flares. This was a prelude to a full carnival style procession to the ground, around two miles away.
We joined the parade to the Stadium which included and a random English ditty exclaiming that the police were bastards. It seemed inoffensive and jaunty and taken in good humour. The tickets we had were for either of the terraces, behind one goal and along one side, purchased online for only €15, about £13, not bad for top flight football. The AFAS Stadion (its official sponsored name) is one of the most modern in Belgium with three rebuilt stands in the last five years.
One side stand has a steep rake topped with executive boxes. Opposite is a curved stand with a bottom tier of terracing. The terracing continues behind one goal with another seated stand atop this. The final stand is the most eye-catching and unusual, with a thin smattering of seats fixed below multi-tier exec boxes known as sky boxes.
The whole is smart and modern, but unlike some new builds, made for football, with stands close to the pitch and old-style terracing.
The first half was as expected. With Mechelen pushing for a European place, they dominated possession and creating a multitude of chances against a Eupen side sitting in the lower half of the table. Good chances were missed but eventually a good came, when a fierce cross from the right was back footed impudently under the keeper. The men at the floodgates nodded to each other and started to push.
However, Eupen played a blinder. Maybe buoyed from sage words of wisdom at half time, they started to hold the ball better and frustrated Mechelen’s attacks. Their patience paid off as a defensive error let Smail Prevljk go one on one with the keeper, and coolly slide the ball agonisingly slowly but inevitably into the corner of the net. The pocket of German speakers standing at the end of the long terrace went berserk – Wunderbar and maybe:
Du Singst nicht
Du Singst nicht
Du Singst nicht mehr
Du Singst nicht mehr
In the tradition of all big grounds, not just in England but in Europe too, it seems, we had to go a long way round to get to the station putting our last train back to Charleroi in doubt. With some jogging and fast-walking we did make it, ready for the shorter trip to fourth tier La Louvière in the morning.