KAA Gent v Zulte-Waregem
Ghelamco Arena / Jupiler Pro League / 17th August 2014
Oostende had been kind to us, Bruges had been very kind to us, but now it was onwards to our final city of our Belgian footballing weekend: the city of Gent. The move from Bruges to Gent would see us cross from West Flanders into the largest city in East Flanders. We had tickets already reserved for us for the Sunday night 6pm kick-off between KAA Gent and Zulte-Waregem and so we left Bruges not long after 10am and made our way to the train station to hop on the train to Gent.
We found ourselves walking along the streets of Gent around 11.30am. As we made our way up the long road to our hostel, I was initially disappointed with the city, as I heard that it was similar in beauty to Bruges, but I had faith that the true heart of the city lay further ahead.
We eventually arrived at our hostel, who wouldn’t let us check in until 3pm, so we dropped off our luggage and went in search of the historic city centre of Gent, which we found just ten minutes from our hotel. The huge scaffolding on St. Bavo’s Cathedral aside, Gent is certainly comparable to Bruges in regards of beautiful city centres. Similar to Bruges, the medieval architecture is immaculately preserved and a canal runs right through the heart of the historic centre around to Gent castle. There was still plenty of time until our check in so we went on a bit of a pub crawl through the centre. We started at a bar near the cathedral, then down to two by the canal, where we fed ourselves with a plate of cheese and salami again, and then, like all good British tourists, we finished at an Irish bar where we watched some of the Liverpool v Southampton game.
By the time we had seen the sights of Ghent and drunk around the town centre, it was almost 3pm so we headed back to our hostel to check in. Our hostel, the Backstay Hostel, seemed to be housed in a fairly traditional old building yet it was modernised and tidy enough for us (not that we were fussy). However, we found one piece of modernity in our room that terrified us: triple-decker bunk beds. One of us had to sleep on the very high up, top bunk, which had no real ladder to get up there. I made one expedition to the top of the beds and then declared there was not a chance in hell that I was sleeping up there. Gibbo was more confident about it, until he went up there too and realised he was too short to get down properly. We decided we’d deal with the bedding situation later and instead we headed down the road to Woodrow Wilson Square.
We had headed here as we knew from reading an excellent blog about another trip to Gent on Fresh Air Football that there was a shuttle bus to KAA Gent’s Ghelamco Arena home from here. Fortunately, we arrived in the square with the bus already waiting there. All aboard the Gent bus! The bus journey to the ground takes about 10-15 minutes, but the journey went quickly as we got chatting to some Gent fans next to us.
As we headed into the outskirts of the city, the Ghelamco Arena appeared into view – and what a sight it is. As you may have been aware of when I’ve written about new grounds in the UK, I’m not a lover of the usual, identi-stadium you find on city boundaries – places such as Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, Shrewsbury’s New Meadow and dare I say it, my team Swansea’s Liberty Stadium. This is just three examples of many, but none are really breathtaking. As for the Ghelamco, well, instantly it strikes you as a thing of beauty.
The stadium is in only its second year of existence having opened in July 2013 with Gent beating Stuttgart 2-0 in the opening game followed by a set from 2manydjs – the internationally successful dance group who originated from Gent. As stated in my blog about the Jan Breydel Stadion, Belgium is not renowned for modern stadia with the Brugge stadium being the last total new build in 1975. It seemed that Gent had taken it upon themselves to drag Belgian football stadia kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Originally the ground was due to be opened in 2006/07 but several delays and building issues led to the ground not opening until 7 years later. It was worth the wait. The Ghelamco, named after the constructors, is fairly space-age in appearance with curving roof and glass panels; the place reminded me of a smaller version of the Emirates (perhaps the best and most eye-catching modern stadium in the UK in my eyes).
Our first port of call was ticket booth C where apparently our tickets were waiting for us. However, ticket booth C then gave us a reference number and sent us to ticket booth D, who then stated we should go back to C. I should add in here that the official KAA Gent Twitter had been great sorting us out with tickets, as they had followed me on Twitter the week before and even private messaged me to sort out issues we were having reserving the tickets with a UK address; as soon as I dropped in the name I was given by the Twitter account folk, there was movement behind the glass and they soon sorted us out with two tickets (priced €20 each – once again, a bargain).
Next stop, the club shop, where I wanted to purchase a scarf. We did find a rail selling last season’s Gent shirt for €20; I was tempted but two things put me off 1) the shirts were half price 2) I had aligned myself with Club Brugge two nights before, so I felt it might be quite traitorous. Anyway, a scarf was purchased to go with my European scarf collection and so we headed out to have more of a nose around their wonderful stadium.
With less than hour to go until the 6pm kick-off, we headed towards our turnstile, which led us up into the concourse of the Ghelamco stand. Once again, the design inside was rather futuristic with weird, white panels lining the ceiling above us. The place was already very busy with many people clearly heading straight to the ground with little else around the ground; in fact, it did occur to me that we had not seen any reference of KAA Gent in the town itself – no fans, no merchandise, not anything really. There was a fairly lively atmosphere on the concourse and so I went to purchase some beer, only to realise that once again I needed to buy a supporters’ card for €1.
We took our beers out into the stands to check out our view from pitchside and just like the outside of the stadium, the inside was equally awesome. Once again, I felt that even inside the ground, the Ghelamco resembled a smaller version of the Emirates Stadium with the capacity of the ground reaching 20,000. The pitch itself is raised onto a sort of stage with the stands being also raised above pitch level. As well as looking very modern, the ground also boasts a variety of eco-friendly initiatives including floodlights that shine down from inside the roof to combat light pollution and a pitch irrigation system which captures rain water. The majority of the stadium is single-tiered with a whole load of executive boxes above the stands; the single-tiered stands also leaves open the option to expand the stadium to 30-40,000 in the future.
As we took our seats (plenty of leg room!), in the Ghelamco stand, we took in the strange sight of an Red Indian Chief walking around the pitch brandishing a Gent flag. This may have been a strange sight without my prior knowledge that Gent are nicknamed the Buffalos, apparently due to Buffalo Bill and his Wild West circus visiting the city in the 1920s. The 1920s would also see Gent move into their old stadium, the Jules Ottenstadion in Gentbrugge. Despite being one of Belgium’s oldest club (formed in 1864), Gent have not won the Belgian league with two runners-up spots being their best finishes, one which was as recent as 2009/10. The club’s best run in Europe came in 1991-92 as they reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, only to lose Ajax.
Gent’s Red Indian then led the teams onto the pitch ready to get this Belgian Pro League game underway – Gent in their blue and white, and Zulte-Waregem in all green.
There was a good 17966 crowd in the Ghelamco on this Sunday evening and they were treated to a great game between two attacking teams. From the first minute Zulte-Waregem went on the attack and had a couple of chances early on as they dominated the opening exchanges.
We had been informed that the place to be for atmospherein the Ghelamco Arena is the Ghelamco stand, but despite a lot of chanting and flag waving at the kick-off, the stand had gone fairly quiet – maybe as Zulte-Waregem took the front foot.
Gent eventually had shots from Laurent Depoitre and Belhocine, but the former’s went wide and Karim Belhocine’s was stopped by the keeper.
In the 44th minute Zulte-Waregem took the lead with a quite strange goal from Idrissa Sylla. Sylla rose high above the Gent defence to header a cross from the right onto the crossbar; however, as the ball came back out and with Sylla on the floor, the Zulte-Waregem striker swivelled on the floor and poked home with a sort of side volley from the floor. I’m not sure what prompted it, but Sylla run away celebrating towards the corner of the Ghelamco stand gesturing towards the Gent fans with his hands cupped behind his ears. He was not very popular for the rest of the game to say the least.
Half-time: KAA Gent 1 – 0 Zulte-Waregem.
Gibbo was already hailing the stadium as one of his favourites and if KAA Gent hadn’t won him over enough, he was ecstatic when they played his beloved Two Door Cinema Club over the tannoy system.
After topping up on beer, we headed back to the stands and immediately there was a change in the atmosphere. The Gent fans were now really loud and they seemed to be in the mood for cheering their team on to victory. With the rain now beginning to pour down (brilliant for the pitch irrigation system I’m sure), Gent piled on the pressure and eventually earned themselves a penalty right in front of us. However, Sven Kums hit his penalty to the left and the away keeper made a great save to deny him.
The penalty miss didn’t seem to deter the team or the fans, who seemed to get louder as the half progressed. Undoubtedly, the difference for Gent was the introduction of superbly named Habib Habibou with the pacey winger causing havoc after his introduction. When a ball was hooked across goal from the edge of the 6 yard box, Habibou was there at the far post to poke home and to make it 1-1.
Two minutes later, it was 2-1 to the home team as a goal kick from Gent keeper Matz Sels sailed over the defence and straight to other substitute Danijel Milicevic to finish simply.
There was really a party atmosphere in the stands now and they had one more chance to celebrate in the 84th minute as Gent grabbed another penalty won by that man Habibou. This time Milicevic fired home past Sammy Bossut to make it 3-1 and to finish the scoring in an exciting game.
Full-time: KAA Gent 3 – 1 Zulte-Waregem.
We were planning on heading back into the city after the game, but following the win, it seemed the whole Gent fanbase had gathered on the concourse and the party was well underway. Brilliantly, the bars were still open after the full-time whistle (unlike on our shores) and there was a lot of bouncing around and singing along to the beats of the Gent drums. People were climbing on top of tables and bins and it really was superb to get amongst it all.
Having engaged in some of the celebrations, we got some drinks and headed out to pitchside again where some fans were still gathered. We got chatting to a group of Gent fans, who were all very friendly, whilst we watched the sun go down through the open area of the roof over the other side of the ground. If it there is one thing we had learnt this weekend, it is that the Belgians are an amazingly friendly bunch and once again this was shown when we were about to leave, but Gent fan Sven insisted that he bought us a drink. Of course, we couldn’t refuse. We shared our tales of our travels and a good time was had by all whilst we drank in the Ghelamco stand with the pitch below – something I can’t imagine being allowed in a millions year in British football.
After catching the bus back to Gent (and me getting told off for having my feet on the seats), we arrived back at our hostel and decided to go out for a few drinks. I’d watched three games of football this weekend and still not had a post match kebab, so we remedied that by visiting the kebab shop near our hostel. Then weirdly, we found two lads throwing a frisbee in a dark street off the main centre of Gent, so we engaged in a bit of night-time frisbee throwing.
Having missed most of the weekend’s football back home, we ended up back in the Irish bar watching Match of the Day 2, whilst singing along to the Smiths, who were playing loudly in the background. The beer had definitely got to me by now, as I proclaimed to the bar that I could do a brilliant ‘Sturridge Dance’ only to make an absolute tit of myself.
As we sat at the bar, we reflected on our Belgian football weekend and declared that all was good here. My only concern had been the quality of the football on show, but the Gent v Zulte-Waregem had proved there is excellent entertainment to be found on the pitch here too. Gibbo had seemed to have concluded that Gent was his favourite of our footballing weekend, whilst I was still in enamoured by the Bruges fans and Club Brugge on the Friday night – not that I didn’t love the Gent fans too.
Similar to Bruges, Gent is a wonderful, if slightly more modernised in parts than Bruges; Gent’s football stadium certainly is more modern too. If you do find yourselves in that part of the world I would definitely recommend a visit to Gent and their wonderful new stadium. And similar to our night at the Bruges derby, the fans will look after you too.
Cheers Gent. Cheers Belgium.
(For those interested, neither us ending up sleeping on the stupidly high third tier bunk bed, as Gibbo found a spare bed lower down).
Highlights: nice city, plenty of bars, cheap beer, superb, new stadium, friendly fans, superb facilities, good atmosphere for a new ground, great game.
Low Points: not too much around the ground.
See all my photos from my trip to Gent and the Ghelamco Arena here.
Also, make sure to check out Gibbo’s awesome site, Gibbo’s 92, for his upcoming report on our day in Gent here.