Football at Eupen, Belgium
Jim Stewart made a winter trip to Eupen, the capital of the German Speaking Community of Belgium
There were maybe 200 passengers on board when my IC train pulled out of the glorious Belgian railway station in Leuven. An hour or so later it halted at its final destination of Eupen.
By now there were five people on the train – and that included the driver and a cleaner.
As I hopped off on to the snowy platform there was barely a person in sight, it looked like a village stop.
Am I sure this is the destination for one of Europe’s biggest fixtures tonight?
OK, that final statement is technically correct but you should take into account a number of factors.
Firstly, it’s a Thursday and outside of Europa League schedules not much ever happens on a Thursday in the footballing world.
It was also the only match taking place in Belgium that night. However, that aside, I was here for a top flight match – and the visitors were no less than the rather well known club Standard Liege.
Heading from the platform in search of life, and some sustenance, it was a sight for sore eyes to see the entrance to Eupen indoor shopping centre.
And just inside, a bonus – Sucre & Sale restaurant, so after barely a second thought I grabbed a seat. One look at the menu brought into focus the mix of languages I was to encounter on my brief stay.
German speaking Belgium
Eupen is the capital of the German Speaking Community of Belgium. Yes, there is one.
It’s tucked up on the country’s eastern border with Germany close to Aachen and this tiny enclave counts Eupen as its major hub.
The flags of both Belgium and Germany fly outside municipal buildings. The streets signs are in German, while the shops often hedge their bets Above the butchers is the sign with the wording Metzgerei (German) and Boucherie (French).
In the restaurants and cafes menus are in German first, then French. Never English. And when you’re welcomed by the waiter you often get a mix of the two.
Tupen has a population of around 20,000 and I had feared it would be largely residential with little to recommend it for a visit.
On exiting the shopping centre into a pleasant but quiet open square, I was still unsure. However a quick stroll right along Gospert soon gladdened the soul.
Small independent stores lined this and neighbouring streets. Beyond the church and right up the hill lies the town’s small but gorgeous market square.
The two spires of the main church reach into the sky on the right while across the square is the smart offices of the town’s newspaper – in German of course.
That day’s issue was displayed outside. It was clear the arrival of Liege, 45 minutes away by train, was a big deal as they recounted a famous match between the sides back in the 70s.
Going to the ground
Once checked in at my hotel and after a pizza and a couple of the local Eupener beers I headed off to the ground. It’s a 20 minute walk from the Ratskeller bar in town to the stadium.
Upon arriving at the roundabout ahead of the gleaming lights at the ground I followed the signs and headed right.
Stumbling through two barbed wire barriers and a clutch of police I arrived at an entrance of sorts. With no sign of ticket windows it was time to ask. It soon became clear I was on completely the wrong side of the stadium. In fact I was in the visitors area, and I had to go back and round.
Mentally totting up the amount of times I’ve done this and vowing this will be the last (fat chance) I completed the circuitous walk which involved yet another hill.
I headed into Eupen’s home end. For those who have sampled the modern stadia of Ghent or Genk, the Kehrwegstadion is a bit of a throwback. The bars are housed in Christmas market-style shacks.
The gents is in a corner surrounded by some tarpaulin for privacy (don’t worry ladies, there are better ones around the side for both sexes).
The 8,000 capacity stadium itself is a tidy and fairly modern affair. With Eupen playing in black and white kit they’ve opted for seats in grey.
The main stand was to the left and this seemed to be largely or entirely corporate, with the really posh seats at the back behind glass.
The visiting fans were afforded the far end of seats, while to the right was the family stand.
I was on the home terrace, covered at one end but spilling round to the left where hardy souls braved the night air. No big TV screens here – if you miss the goal you’ve missed out.
Eupen are certainly one of the smaller clubs in Belgium’s Pro League. Founded just after the war, they first made it to the top division just seven years ago. They went straight down, albeit by just a point, but returned there this season.
This game was a big deal to the Pandas. A win over much larger near rivals offered a welcome three points to pull away from the bottom of the table.
That prompted a crowd of 5,600 to turn up on a bleak winter’s night, the biggest crowd of the season up to that point.
However Liege, roared on by a boisterous following, were determined to spoil things. They went in front after just three minutes through Belfodil.
Eupen fought back and had chances but couldn’t take them, indeed it was Liege who rattled the crossbar before half time.
Switching to gluhwein at half time to keep warm, it’s always welcome to see some random half time entertainment. Here a selection of, I guess, sponsors had the chance kick the ball towards the club’s mascot, Eupi the Panda, in the centre circle.
Out for the second half and Eupen meant business. On 54 minutes a shot from the angle was going well wide until Liege defender Laifis deflected it past his own keeper.
Eleven minutes later Eupen were in dreamland as Mamadou burst through and angled his shot past the keeper to put them in front.
This sent the home fans into ecstasy and deflating the red army contingent from Liege.
Surely Eupen could hold on? Oh no. A rather shoddy mix-up between keeper and defender allowed Belfodil in between them to stab home an equaliser.
Heading back, going downhill proved to be much easier than the journey up. There was time for a last couple of brews as the evening match was reviewed on TV.
Eupen may not leap out as an obvious destination, but a day here is just fine. Just a short journey away from Liege or Aachen, if you find yourself ending up here you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
This feature first appeared in Football Weekends magazine, a UK-based magazine for football fans who enjoy travelling throughout Europe. Magazines are posted worldwide: for details visit www.footballweekends.co.uk