Hub of fashion, diamonds and art masterpieces, Antwerp isn’t always associated with football. But Belgium’s second city is home to the country’s oldest club and most venerable local derby.
In 2019, for the first time since 2003-04, Antwerp almost had two clubs in the top division. One, Royal Antwerp, not only have a regal name but, of all Belgium’s several thousand clubs granted a matricule registration number, are officially No.1.
Populist Beerschot are based at the former Olympisch Stadion where the 1920 Games were held. Even by Belgian standards, their history is so convoluted even Hercule Poirot would struggle to untangle its mysteries. In a further twist, in 2019, Beerschot almost gained promotion through the back door until Mechelen’s enforced relegation due to previous match fixing was rescinded.
Both clubs date back to the late 1800s. Royal Antwerp, ‘The Great Old’, were formed as Antwerp Athletic Club by English students, as far back as 1880. A football section was created in 1887 and later named Antwerp Football Club. Members would meet at the Taverne Alsacienne in the shadow of the cathedral on Groenplaats.
Along with similar pioneering clubs in Brussels, Liège and Bruges, Antwerp FC took part in the inaugural Belgian championship of 1895-96, though would have to wait another 30 years to win it.
The lack of success in these early days had its roots in the schism of 1900, when several Antwerp players, most notably English ones, left for a newly formed club across town: Beerschot.
While Antwerp had been involved in the Belgian League, a certain Ernest Grisar had bought a hippodrome in the far south of town, an area known as Kiel. His son Alfred had studied at Brighton College and was familiar with football – in fact, he had already played in goal for Antwerp FC. He duly persuaded his father to form a football club, naming it after a nearby park.
This was just as well he did as, a few months after founding Beerschot in September 1899, Grisar senior died in Paris.
Deciding on colours of mauve and white, Alfred Grisar convinced several of his old teammates at Antwerp to jump ship. So many players left, in fact, that Antwerp felt unable to continue the following season and Beerschot took their place. A few days before becoming official members of the Belgian League, Beerschot had played their first game: a friendly against Antwerp reserves.
Long, bitter city rivalries have been built on less. Until financial circumstances forced them to fold in 1999, three months short of their centenary, Beerschot would always take pleasure in beating Antwerp. Today the records show that the Kielmen won seven national titles, three more than the men in red.
By 1903, Antwerp FC were also based in Kiel, after playing early games on the sands by the North Dock and at the Vélodrome in Zurenborg near Berchem. After three years on Kruisstraat, the club moved to Broodstraat, a ground used for the 1920 Olympic football tournament. It was here that Italy overcame Norway, a game that kicked off at 10am and lasted 140 minutes.
Built for the Games, the Olympic Stadium was also in Kiel. Here the main matches took place, including the final. Belgium were awarded gold after Czechoslovakia, 2-0 down towards half-time, walked off in protest at refereeing decisions.
With the local public now in thrall to football, Royal Antwerp had outgrown Broodstraat and bought land in the far east of town, in Deurne. In 1923, England and Belgium played a curtain-raising friendly to open the Bosuilstadion, a 2-2 draw, the first time that the visitors had ever dropped points to European opposition.
The Bosuilstadion also staged the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final replay of 1964, a 1-0 win for Sporting Lisbon over MTK Budapest, and many Belgian internationals. For the semi-final of Euro 72, Gerd Müller scored in each half to take eventual winners West Germany past the hosts.
Back in Kiel, the running track upon which Paavo Nuurmi had won 10,000 metres gold was soon stripped away and the Olympic Stadium became the Kielstadion, home to Beerschot.
It still is, although the club and its loyal and significant fan base have had to jump through many logistical hoops before arriving back at the simple name of Beerschot in 2019. Not least being offered promotion the same year – then seeing it taken away again.
The last Belgian club to play a European final, a defeat to Parma at Wembley in 1993, Antwerp spent 13 years in the second tier before gaining their own promotion in 2017. ‘The Great Old’ hold the record, remarkable considering the merger-mad nature of Belgian football, of playing 114 of the 115 campaigns staged in the domestic game. 1900-01, of course, is still the season that sticks out.
No major budget or national carrier currently uses Antwerp International Airport, 5.5km (three miles) south-east of the city.
Tickets for Eurostar passengers from London St Pancras are sold as direct to Antwerp, even though the journey requires a change at Brussels-Midi. Average journey time is 3hrs, advance singles from around €70.
From the Eurostar terminal at Brussels-Midi, a direct train runs every 30min to Antwerpen-Centraal, 45min journey time. A regular single ticket is €7.50.
Antwerpen-Centraal is by the Diamond Quarter, east of the city centre a 15min walk away. Public transport of buses, trams and the Premetro is run by De Lijn. A single ticket from the machine by the stop or the driver is €3, valid for 1hr. A day pass is €7, €9 on board, 3-day pass €14. Validate your ticket for each journey in the yellow machine.
Both stadiums are far from the centre and require public transport or a taxi. A Stadtaxi can be contacted on +32 3 233 37 37 – rates are set and controlled by the City.
There are no hotels near either main stadium. For easy access, a location near either tramline – Nos.2 or 5 – is the best bet. The Astrid Premetro station serves both lines and is close to Antwerpen-Centraal. Here you’ll find the four-star Radisson Blu Astrid Hotel Antwerp, with charging station for electric cars, gym, pool and Made In Antwerp restaurant, and, across Carnotstraat, the more affordable yet comfortable Park Inn by Radisson Antwerp.
Closer to the train station, the smart but price-conscious Leonardo is literally opposite the main entrance, as is business-friendly De Keyser, with its late-opening Emerald Bar. Also nearby on De Keyserlei, four-star De Hylitt provides shoppers at the surrounding diamond stores with a rooftop restaurant, pool and lounge bar.
There are budget choices, too: the Billard Palace on Koningen Astridplein is that unusual combination of hotel and snooker hall, although its three-star rating may be pushing it.
Halfway between Centraal and the other main station of Berchem and by tram 11 that serves both, TRYP by Wyndham Antwerp strikes a nice balance between fashionable and affordable.
For a central spot on tram 5, say Groenplaats, high-end options include the Hilton Antwerp Old Town, with its gym and sundeck roof terrace, and mid-range, old-school Hotel National on Nationalestraat.
On the tram 2 route, near the Lange Leemstraat stop, the four-star Plaza Hotel offers bike rental and rooftop rooms.
Amber De Koninck is Antwerp’s signature beer, served in a bowl-shaped glass known as a bolleke, which is what you should ask for. All bars will stock several other Belgian brews as well, of course.
Right on Grote Markt, Den Engel has been serving Antwerp’s finest bolleke to generations of locals for over a century. On the other side of the square, the Irish Times Pub is the Antwerp branch of a Belgian mini-chain, with TV sport and live music the focus.
Close by on Blauwmoezelstraat, Paters Vaetje stocks scores of Belgian beers, Trappist, light and dark. One street over, in a building dating back to 1425, De Elfde Gebod is another beer sanctuary, although more restaurant than pub.
One street over on Melkmaart, De Pelikaan is steeped in beer tradition, its terrace tables overlooking the cathedral.
Between the main square and the waterfront, you’ll find 350 beers to choose from at the Café Pardaf on Suikerrui while round the corner overlooking the river, the Café Beveren is an evergreen classic with a vintage jukebox.
Last but not least, on Leopoldplats south of the city centre, Old Trafford is run by a former Antwerp youth player and filled with MU memorabilia.