KAA Gent – Ghelamco Arena

The draft of this post was thrown to one side, forgotten about and left to collect dust for almost six years. In a week where Noel Gallagher claims to have found a ‘forgotten’ Oasis track in his house, here is a trip back through the archive. It isn’t my best piece of writing, as I feel I’ve got better at it since but it’s still a nice account of the city and the football match we went to.

Part three of our trip to Belgium a couple of summers ago saw us head to the city of Ghent; and what a city. Boasting fantastic architecture, plenty of decent beer and an impressive, modern football ground it is no wonder that Lonely Planet dub this place ‘Belgium’s best kept secret’. The capital of East Flanders, Ghent is also the birthplace of current Manchester City midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, some British cyclist named Sir Bradley Wiggins and John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster.

Belgium had been kind to us so far. The Friday saw us take in the huge derby match between Club Brugge and Cercle Brugge, while we spent the Saturday walking down the beach to watch Oostende host Mechelen. We hadn’t witnessed enough Jupiler League action, so found ourselves finishing off our European trip with a visit to KAA Gent v Zulte Waregem.

At the time of our visit, the impression that we got from Gent fans was that they were one of the underachievers in Belgian football. Having been founded in 1900, they had never won the Belgian League title and had only won the Belgian Cup three times. To add to this, they moved to their brand new ground in time for the 2013/14 season and went on an indifferent run at home in the league; ultimately finishing seventh.

Fast forward 18 months and a lot had changed. The Buffalos finally won their first league title at the end of the 2014-15 season, automatically qualifying for the Champions League in the process. Placed in a group with Lyon, Zenit St Petersburg and Valencia, they defied the odds and qualified for the last 16 where they were eventually knocked out by Wolfsburg. In getting that far, they became the first Belgian side to reach the knockout stages since Anderlecht in 2001.

I don’t really have much time for the Champions League; I find it stale and commercialised. Despite this, I did follow with a bit of interest that season to see just how far Gent could go as we really did enjoy my evening at the Ghelamco Arena. As already mentioned, they really are serial underachievers and their fans were among the nicest I have ever met (possibly helped by the fact they sealed a rare home win).

So, after our drunken exploits in the main square in Bruges the night before, we left our hostel and walked a rather scenic way back to the train station. Lots of tourist groups were mooching around the small independent chocolate shops while we barged past them struggling to drag our suitcase over the cobbled streets. The city was beautifully peaceful (with the exception of our suitcase) and it seemed a shame to have to leave.

We caught the train over to Ghent at around 11:00, arriving into the city 25 minutes later. None of that Northern Rail crap over in Belgium; obviously. Saint Peters train station is located rather inconveniently towards the south of the city centre meaning we had a rather lengthy walk to our hostel on the other side of the city. We could have caught one of the trams that operated from the station but we wanted some exercise… and in truth had no idea which service we would need and couldn’t really be bothered working it out. These were the days before Google Maps was dead clever.

Initially, we were both underwhelmed by the place. It all seemed a bit drab and rundown as we headed up a never-ending climb. Then that fine rain that soaks you through began to fall. We then got a bit lost… and a bit more wet… and the architecture and area became even more dire. Eventually we made it to the Backstay Hostel on Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat which was ideally located a two minute walk from the square where we would need to catch the bus from to the match later on in the day. We weren’t allowed to check in until 15:00, so dumped our bags in some sort of dungeon and headed out to explore the city properly.

Heading towards Saint Bavo Cathedral seemed like a sensible option, and our decision proved fruitful as we found a few bars and cafes next door to the impressive construction. We settled for Rechters, where Matt had a beer and I went for my usual hangover concoction of a pot of tea and an orange juice. If ever you see me before a match drinking those two together you know I am struggling.

Further up from the Cathedral is the beautiful city centre which boasts more medieval architecture built along a canal. The Belfry of Gent is the tallest in the country and is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage list and the Gravensteen Castle was constructed in 1180.

Alongside the canal we found a quiet bar named De Grill. Admittedly, it was more of a restaurant, but there was plenty of seating outside so we thought it would be a great place to have a pint. We weren’t really bothered what we were drinking so asked the waiter for two pints. As we sat waiting to see what we would be served, we simply sat relaxing watching the world go by. It certainly beat an afternoon sat in the beer garden at the pub on Wigan Pier.

Our waiter returned with two pints of Gentsestrop; the nicest beer I had during my time in Belgium. According to the breweries website, Gentenaars (the citizens of Ghent) staged a rebellion against Emperor Charles in 1540. In retaliation, Charles forced the Gentenaars to parade through the streets dressed in white tabards and nooses. This earned people from the city the nickname of ‘sobriquet’ which translates to ‘noose-bearers’. So, essentially the word ‘strop’ in the beer name translates to ‘noose’. So next time you are handed a strangely named beer, pick up your phone and do some research… you never know what interesting historical stories you may discover. Alternatively, you could get a life and just down it and move on to the next pub like Matt did.

The small pub crawl came to an end when we realised we were now able to check into our hostel. Nothing could prepare us for the room that we were given a key to. It was bright orange complete with triple bunk beds and had a gathering of some Asian girls laying in wait as we carefully opened the door to see where we would be spending the night. The girls were nice enough, some other foreign lad was hiding in the corner on his laptop. Our main memory of Ghent? The bunk beds were bloody terrifying.

Matt doesn’t like heights, so I immediately drew the short straw and was told in no uncertain terms that I would be sleeping with my nose practically touching the ceiling. Not too bothered, I clambered up the pieces of wood that acted as a ladder and tested out the bed. It was fine. Now, time to get down and head to the match.

I was stuck. I couldn’t get down. My small legs couldn’t find a slat to stand on and Matt was too low down to offer any kind of assistance. We looked at the possibility of jumping on to the wardrobe opposite, but the Asian girls told me in no uncertain terms not to do so. Could I slide down? No. How about throwing loads of mattresses on to the floor and jumping? No. The hospital was too far away. It soon dawned upon me that I could be stuck up there all night and I didn’t even have a bottle to piss in; what a disaster.

Coaxed down like a cat from a tree I grabbed my bag, put my shoes on and headed for the door. As we headed out into the square, Matt and I discussed whether or not it would be easier approach the bunk beds having had a few more pints. Before we had time to agree, we saw that the bus was already waiting at the stop outside the library and we were soon on our way to the Ghelamco Arena. Itt cost €3 for a return journey, or €2 for a single journey. You had to buy a KAA Gent token from somebody outside the bus before boarding, and then hand the token over to the driver when you board.

It took around ten minutes to reach the stadium and I was instantly won over. New build stadiums are usually rubbish, but not this one. I’ve read other people say that the Ghelamco Arena lacks character and is soulless, much like the plethora of stadiums back home, but this is different. Everything seemed to have been planned out and designed to make it as welcoming and as accessible as possible upon arrival. Aesthetically, the concourses were spot on and the stands felt like communal areas.

As previously mentioned, the stadium only opened in 2013. This makes it the newest in the country, closely followed (or not) by the Jan Breydel Stadium in Bruges that was opened in 1975. Originally, the Ghelamco was due to open in 2006 but various setbacks meant the club had to wait seven years to move from the Ottenstadion. Their previous home had been opened in 1920 just in time for the Olympic Games when it hosted a match between Italy and Egypt.

Kick off was fast approaching and my attention was soon caught by the music that was blaring out of the speakers around the stadium. It was my favourite band, Two Door Cinema Club, with ‘Something Good Can Work’ which made me very excited indeed. They’re not a band that receive an awful lot of play time, even these days, so to hear them back then and in a foreign country really was a treat.

I was still calming myself down when the sides arrived on the pitch, led out by a fully grown man dressed as Buffalo Bill. A real life man, playing role of mascot is a rare sight. I can only really think of the bald bloke at Bradford City as another example. Why were they being led out by a man who looked like he was part of the Village People? Well, in 1906, Buffalo Bill arrived in the city with his Wild West circus. During the show, the audience was encouraged to shout the words ‘Buffalo! Buffalo!’ and it has stuck around in the city as a chant ever since, with the club adopting the nickname.

The crowd of 17,966, which was apparently more than they would normally get, saw an exciting match but it took until the 44th minute for the deadlock to be broken. Mamadou Sylla headed the ball against the crossbar and Matz Sels was on hand to pass the rebound into the net.

Into the second half and Sven Kums had an ideal chance to put the home side further ahead when won a penalty but Sammy Bossut pulled off a great save. Moments later, Benito Raman came close to doubling the Buffalos lead but was unlucky with a long shot that bounced off the outside of the post.

Typically, Zulte-Waregem equalised but just two minutes later, the home fans started to create a party atmosphere when Danijel Milićević latched on to a long free kick and finished well.

In the final minutes, another penalty was awarded and this time it was dispatched. Habib Habibou was brought down and Milicevic confidently slotted past Bossut and secured Gent’s 3-1 victory. Frustrations crept in for an ill disciplined Zulte, and their Icelandic midfielder Skulason was sent off in the closing moments. The Gent supporters, on the other hand, went into the evening partying. And what a party it was.

Their fans invited Matt and I to drink and sing with them on the concourses which remained open for two hours after the final whistle. You were able to buy a pint and then go back into the stands and chill out, chatting to other supporters. There was no rush to leave; fair play to Gent. The culture of the fans was very much, “We will drink here as the money goes to our football club” which is what happens when you don’t rip off your fan base. I have to point out though, this was apparently a rare occurrence at the stadium, as they hadn’t won many matches there when we attended.

More by luck than judgement, we managed to make the last shuttle bus back to the city centre and we saw the rest of the night out by drinking in an Irish Bar close to the river. 

I will leave you with the words of Lonely Planet who sum up the city far better than I have managed to do in this entry.

“Ghent is one of Europe’s greatest discoveries – small enough to feel cosy but big enough to stay vibrant. It has enough medieval frivolity to create a spectacle but retains a gritty industrial edge that keeps things ‘real’. Tourists remain surprisingly thin on the ground, yet with its fabulous canalside architecture, wealth of quirky bars and some of Belgium’s most fascinating museums, this is a city you really won’t want to miss.”



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