Charleroi typifies the post-industrial gloom of Wallonia. A long-term budget-air hub, the largest city in the French-speaking half of Belgium, this former centre for coal and steel production is now a mish-mash of slag heaps, rusting plants and dilapidated façades, brightened in part by colourful street art that is slowly becoming its signature redeeming feature.
When Charleroi was chosen as a host venue for Euro 2000, many couldn’t have placed it on the map.
But when venerable Sporting Charleroi were formed in 1904, ten years before the war that ravaged this part of Belgium, this was a boomtown of entrepreneurs, industrialists, miners and their families. Shortly before World War I, another club, Olympic, were formed here, by 17-year-old student, Jules Ponsaerts.
After 1918 – Charleroi spared complete destruction by paying the Germans off – the two clubs were affiliated to the Belgian FA and competed in the Hainaut regional league. Olympic were based at La Neuville, still their home rue Neuve after decades of name changes, colour changes and mergers. Sporting, in their black-and-white stripes soon known Les Zèbres, played at nearby rue Spinois.
The first derby took place in 1924 then in subsequent seasons within the framework of the regional league. The biggest local clash came at the climax of the 1935-36 campaign when the two league leaders met to play off for promotion to the second flight. Each had finished the regular league season with 24 wins and two defeats. La Neuville was pulled out of the hat as the venue and Belgium’s most prestigious referee, John Langenus, of 1930 World Cup Final fame, selected to officiate. With home advantage and 114 goals already scored in the league, Olympic confirmed their position as favourites by beating Sporting 2-1. Les Zèbres gained promotion the following season – just as Olympic reached the top tier.
Also in black and white – black shirts with white collars and cuffs, white shorts, black socks – Olympic spent most of the pre- and post-war period in Belgium’s top flight. Though never winning any silverware, Les Dogues twice finished in the top three.
Sporting had moved into their current home, then known as the Stade du Mambourg after the nearby mine, when it opened in 1939. The curtain-raiser with local US Centre – since disappeared from the record books – ended in a 2-1 win for Les Zèbres.
Sporting’s first promotion to the top tier came in 1946-47, the same season that city rivals Olympic finished a best-ever runners-up below Anderlecht. Gradually, Sporting outshone Olympic, the 1947-48 campaign the first of 50 so far in the Belgian élite. The Zebras later played in two Belgian Cup finals and reached Europe three times, most recently in 2015-16.
Mambourg became Stade du Pays de Charleroi on the eve of Euro 2000. In a match sadly blighted by the ugly scenes of violence in and around Charleroi’s main square, Alan Shearer headed a rare winner for England over Germany.
Its expansion to 30,000 seats frowned upon by local fans, the stadium saw reduction to a 15,000 capacity in 2012.
Mambourg and La Neuville are close to each other east of the centre – Olimpic a short walk from the Parc tramstop, Sporting near Janson one up the line – but Charleroi’s two main clubs have rarely met since Olympic last fell out of the First in 1975. By then, the poorer neighbours had become (deep breath) Royal Olympic Club de Montignies-sur-Sambre, reversed to Royal Olimpic in 1982 before being named Royal Olimpic Club de Charleroi-Marchienne in Euro 2000 year.
Almost worse, by then Sporting had also long been known as Les Carolos – a generic term for someone from Charleroi.
In 2007, Olimpic at last gained promotion back to Division 2, but the step up was short-lived. Within a week of the club’s centenary celebrations in 2011, the Belgian FA had closed down Olimpic because of non-payment of salaries.
Fans rallied round, organising communal events, and an amateur club emerged, competing in the lower regional rungs. In 2016, the club announced the dropping of ‘Marchienne’ from the name and a revived Olimpic won their division of the fourth flight. Still based at La Neuville – overhauled in 1937 and even temporarily closed in 2010 because of dangerous floodlighting – Olimpic currently are competing in the Division 2 amateur, effectively Division 4. The byzantine restructuring of the Belgian League system before 2016-17 means that Olimpic remain fourth tier, but with a far more solid foundation than in 2012.
And without having to groundshare either. Racing Club Charleroi-Couillet-Fleurus moved into La Neuville in 2005, then again in 2011, but are currently based at the Stade du Fiestaux (300 rue de Villers) in the club’s spiritual home of Couillet. On the south-eastern outskirts of Charleroi, just over the River Sambre, Charleroi-Couillet have a history dating back to Armistice Day 1919.
Recently known as ‘FC Charleroi’, the orange-and-blacks are currently in the same Division 2 amateur as Olimpic.
One of the busiest budget-air hubs in Europe, Charleroi airport – aka Brussels South – is 7.5km (4.5 miles) north of Charleroi.
Buses immediately outside the airport terminal are for Brussels and nearby towns in France and Luxembourg. For Charleroi, head to the left and the far end of the parking area. From there, Bus A (Mon-Sat every 30min, Sun every hr) runs to the main train station of Charleroi-Sud (€6 on board) 20min away.
Airport taxi drivers are notoriously rude – you’ll part with a flat rate of €20 to the station/town. Around town, local Taxis Carolo (+32 71 32 32 32) are as good as any.
Charleroi-Sud is on the southern edge of town, the main square a short walk away. If you’re coming in from Brussels-Midi, a half-hourly train to Charleroi (€9.50) takes just under 1hr.
For the stadiums and any further journeys, you’ll need to take advantage of Charleroi’s transport network of buses and swift, modern, four-line tram system that serves Charleroi-Sud. A single ticket is €1.90, a day pass €4 from machines, €2.10/€5 on board.
The city has no online database of accommodation information.
The nearest hotel to Sporting’s stadium is the mid-range Leonardo Hotel Charleroi, with its own gym, sauna and restaurant, the Brasserie Mayence.
Until fairly recently, this was a Best Western. The same group also oversees the longer-established and more business-like Leonardo Hotel Charleroi City Center, on a main street just the other side of the main square from Charleroi-Sud station.
Opposite the station itself, just over the water, the white-fronted, 72-room ibis Charleroi Centre Gare is affordable and convenient.
Around town, there are apartments of varying qualities and hire-by-the-hour love hotels. Primus at 39 rue Léopold (+32 71 30 18 86) is as good as any – though you may be better off going with Airbnb.
This being Belgium, there are plenty of beers to choose from – and plenty of bars to drink them in.
Place du Manège is a decent enough starting point for any bar trawl. The traditional Café des Templiers at No.7 has been a rendezvous venue for Sporting Charleroi fans since the early 1920s an older generation tends to meet here. Le Bastia is a lovely little locals’ bar with, as the name suggests, Corsicans leanings – and TV sport.
Nearby, La Cuve À Bière is a must, a homely bar serving 150 types of beer, the brands lovingly represented with vintage ads around the walls. There’s TV football at the back so you can sample at your leisure while watching the game.
Down from this upper part of town, there are dozens of options as you head towards the river and Sud station. If you fancy a change from beers, Nirvana on boulevard de l’Yser is the main cocktail bar in town.
Further along the boulevard to the end, near Parc tramstop, Le Luxembourg at 41 rue du Pont Neuf is a classic bar/restaurant, though not afraid to charge that little extra for its popularity.
On rue de Dampremy, Le Piéton is a popular spot for a beer and a bite, with a TV inside. There’s a terrace in summer, too. A couple of doors down at No.8, the now slightly gentrified Brasserie Le Bistro has been a favourite with local Carolos for generations – in its pre-war guise, the Café Paul was where Zebras fans used to meet.
Further down, on main boulevard Joseph Tirou, the Irish Times Pub was opened just in time for Euro 2000 and feels as artificial as it did back then – although does provide a handy spot for TV sport. Diagonally opposite, Notre Maison is an architectural wonder, a communal building with a bar/restaurant done out in striking murals depicting Charleroi’s industrial past.
Tucked away on rue de Marcinelle but well worth a look in, La Quille is a lovely old bar/restaurant done out in dark wood and historic photos, including old Sporting line-ups.
There’s also a cluster of bars near the river, just over the water from the station – convivially dowdy by day but be on your guard here after dark.