When Brussels was announced as one of 13 cities due to host Euro 2020, thoughts turned to Heysel, synonymous with the tragic European Cup Final of 1985. Both the name of the area and the stadium that centrepieced it, Heysel also refers to the disaster in which 39 mostly Juventus fans lost their lives when hooliganism, poor crowd control and a crumbling infrastructure combined to cause horrific scenes before the match.
After years of recriminations, legal processes and the long-term banning of English teams from playing in Europe, Belgium’s national stadium was rebuilt a decade later as the Stade Roi Baudouin. It was welcomed back into the international fold with the staging of the opening match of Euro 2000.
The venue also formed part of Belgium’s bid to co-host Euro 2020. But in 2016, when builders begin on the site, it wasn’t to renovate or revamp the Stade Roi Baudouin, but to create an entirely new venue: Eurostadium Brussels. This would not only have created a 62,000-capacity national stadium but incorporated a shopping centre, conference hall and 15,000-capacity theatre. In the end, the project was cancelled and Brussels lost the right to stage matches for Euro 2020.
Other consequences of the new construction would have been the uprooting of the city’s flagship football club, Anderlecht, after more than a century in south-west Brussels. Once dominant, les Mauves suffered a worst-ever season in 2018-19 and didn’t even qualify for Europe. Across the city, the city’s second club, FC Molenbeek Brussels Strombeek, aka FC Brussels, folded, leaving Royal White Star Brussels, from Woluwe-St-Lambert, to take over their stadium, the Edmond Machtens, for home fixtures. Consecutive seasons struggling with overbearing debt led the club’s demise in 2017. Formed in 2015, phoenix club RWDM47 moved back into the Edmond Machtens and now compete in Belgium’s top amateur division.
Union St-Gilloise, one the big names from the 1930s, gained promotion through the back door in 2015 to the Second. In 2019, bizarrely, Union even came close to a Europa League play-off. Union’s bucolic ground sits amid urban forest south of Brussels city centre, an easy hop from the Eurostar terminus at Midi station.
Despite all the Heysel notoriety, the Belgian capital still attracts the romantic neutral. Quaint local teams form the fabric of the lower leagues. Many disappear, some amalgamate. The names alone are worthy of a boy’s comic – Daring Club, Royal Racing White, Skill FC de Bruxelles.
A visit to St-Gilles, Molenbeek, even Anderlecht, is like a trip to another era. On the wall of bars by each ground will be a league ladder in bright colours, the teams’ positions faithfully moved after each weekend’s action. Along with an enviable selection of Belgian beers, you can order Oxo, Ovaltine or Bovril, beneath mounted vintage scarves and badges. Knowledgeable football talk ensues.
Belgians, supreme collectors of trivia and Anglophiles all, still appreciate the game at its grass roots, a world away from the executive boxes of Chelsea, Milan or Madrid.
Brussels Airport is 11km (7 miles) north-east of the city. Four trains an hour (20-30mins, €7.60) link with the three main train stations in town, Midi, Centrale and Nord. A taxi is about €40. The Eurostar from London St Pancras has its terminus at Brussels Midi.
Several budget airlines use Charleroi, an hour’s bus journey to Brussels (€13 single, €22 return). City transport consists of a metro network, interlinking trams running underground known as the pré-metro, and buses. A single is €1.80, five rides €7.50, ten €11.80, a day pass €6. For a taxi, call Taxis Bleus (+32 2 268 00 00).
You can book a hotel through the tourist office. Walking distance from the Stade Baudouin, the three-star Alliance Hotel Brussels Expo is the former Holiday Inn Garden Court. Closer still is the Best Western Hotel Expo.
In town, the Marriott, the Hôtels Opéra and Matignon, and Aparthotels Brussels offer varying levels of luxury close to the main square, Grand’Place. For old-school grandeur, look no further than the venerable Métropole, right on the central transport hub of De Brouckère.
For convenience and comfort, the Hotel NH Brussels Carrefour de l’Europe exudes four-star elegance while the five-star Amigo marries history with contemporary design. Handy for the nightlife hub, the Hotel Orts offers standard rooms above a bar.
Slightly further out, The Hotel provides panoramic luxury on the ring road that encloses the city centre. Nearby photo-themed Zoom is a design-forward home from home, chic yet comfortable. At the northern edge of the Petit Ring, Bloom provides funky rooms done out with individual art, and a scented lobby, on the edge of the Turkish quarter.
If you’re after real Brussels, overlooking the main square of earthy Les Marolles, with its regular flea market, the Galia is a friendly, 20-room cheapie.
Of the many options, near Midi Station, the Hôtel Cascade Midi provides a rare touch of quality with attractive online rates. Opposite one of the station exits, the Park Inn by Radisson Brussels Midi Hotel offers reliable comfort, as does the recently opened and hi-spec Pullman Brussels Midi.
Brussels is justifiably famous for its range of beers, served in the bar hubs around place St-Géry and rue du Marché-aux-Charbons. Close by, landmark o’reilly’s is a long-established, sport-focused pub. It has been joined by The Big Game (rue Henri Maus 5), a more basic bar with a huge screen for football and party atmosphere post-match. An equally short walk from the main square, the Celtica is more intimate. By St-Géry, the Lava at rue St Christoph 20 is a friendly spot for football watching.
Also central, within a minute of each other, Six Nations is more rugby-oriented while nearby sister bar Churchill’s sports images of classic Brit pop bands. In this same hub, party-minded Rooster’s appeals to a local clientele with TV sports and cocktail nights. Cocktail-focused but sport-friendly with it when the occasion demands, downtown Scott’s can be found by the unique statue outside.
Tucked away on tranquil place de Londres, on the edge of the funky Ixelles and the business-like EU Quarter, Golden Stones is a friendly and football-focused bar/pub run by a friendly Turkish chap with a soft spot for Cheltenham FC. Also close to the expat-centric concrete jungle of the EU Quarter, Fat Boy’s is a currently under threat of closure. A petition might yet save this long-established and popular sports bar.
For a real feel of the local scene, Brasserie de l’Union, a couple of tram stops from Midi on the parvis de St-Gilles, is the classic hang-out of Union fans, the city’s flagship club of the pre-war era. At the other edge of the square, the Brasserie Verschueren puts food first during the day but features a gorgeous league ladder as its backdrop mural.