Capital of East Flanders, the port city of Ghent recently eclipsed Belgium’s previous football powerhouses of Brussels and Bruges when KAA Gent won the title in 2015 and reached the knock-out rounds of the Champions League.
The seventh-oldest club in the country, thus awarded with the matricule number of 7, Gent date back to the earliest days of the Belgian game.
As a multisports operation, Gent, originally known as La Gantoise, can trace their history back to 1864. By the time a football team was added to hockey, cricket and fencing ones in 1900, the club had a serious local rival: Racing.
Formed the year before from an amalgamation of AC Gantois, FC Gantois and SP Gantois, Racing nonetheless received a matricule number of 11. Playing in black and white, RC de Gand were early frontrunners, making the first Belgian Cup final of 1912 and achieving two top-five league finishes between the wars.
The post-war years weren’t kind to the venerable club, who went through several mergers in modern times before a final one with KFC Oostakker in 2002. Now officially known as KRC Gent-Zeehaven but still referred to as Racing, the black-and-whites are based at the PGB-stadion at Eikstraat 85A in Oostakker, by the city’s main port north-east of central Ghent. Bus Nos.70, 71 and 73 run from stop 3 at Gent-Zuid and stop 8 at Gent-Dampoort to Oostakker-Eikstraat, journey time 15-20min. The club currently plays in Division 3, Group A, at the 2,500-capacity PGB.
By contrast, KAA Gent – like Racing, the club switched names from French to Flemish in the modern era – now run out at the swish new-build Ghelamco Arena, opened in 2013. Having switched from black and white to blue, and gained a bizarre nickname after Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West circus to town, the Buffalos had been based at the Jules Ottenstadion from 1920.
Built just before the Antwerp Olympics, the Ottenstadion was named after one of the club’s founders. It only hosted one match for the 1920 football tournament, the great pre-war Italians Renzo De Vecchi and Adolfo Baloncieri playing in a 2-1 victory over Egypt.
The Ottenstadion witnessed the rise of the Buffalos to cup winners and league runners-up in 2010. Set in Gentbrugge close to the N9 that runs south of Ghent to Brussels, it is not too far as the crow flies from the Ghelamco, south-west of town.
Several years in the planning, strangled by red tape and squeezed by the credit crunch, the Ghelamco eventually opened in 2013 – at least three years after its due date and two after the Ottenstadion had staged a last international, Belgium’s 1-1 draw with Finland.
All the delays were forgotten about when KAA beat Standard Liège to win the Belgian title at the Ghelamco in May 2015. They went on to overcome Valencia and Zenit St Petersburg the following autumn to face Wolfsburg in the Champions League round of 16.
Ghent is the same distance from Antwerp and Brussels airports, around 65km (40 miles) away.
Sint-Pieters is a short tram ride south of the mainly pedestrianised town centre – Gent-Zuid bus station is walking distance.
Local transport in Ghent consists of trams and buses. A single ticket (valid 1hr) is €3 from a machine, Lijnwinkel kiosk or on board. A day pass is €6 or €8 on board.
For a local cab, call Taxi Gent on +32 9 333 3333.
Opposite Sint-Pieters station, the friendly, family-run Castel has its own brasserie while the nearby mid-range Carlton is more business-like. Further up, nearer town, the Best Western Chamade is a standard three-star.
Traditional bars serving varied Belgian beers dot Ghent’s historic centre. There’s an Irish pub too, the Celtic Towers, with three big screens for sport and live music.
Opposite Sint-Pieters station, De Drij Zinne and New Watson and ‘T Center round the corner are both handy for a terrace drink and TV football inside.