The surprise package of 2017, the Kustboys of KV Oostende have lost momentum since the departure of billionaire owner Marc Coucke for Anderlecht that December.
Average crowds at the Versluys Arena, tucked in from the seafront, have dipped below 5,000 and there’s a sense of 2017 being the high-water mark in the club’s history.
After losing out on penalties in the Belgian Cup final but making a debut European appearance, KVO have gone through five coaches in a bid to prevent a slide to the second tier.
But for over a century, the Kustboys and predecessors only knew football in the lower rungs.
VG Oostende, founded in 1904, and the more prominent AS Oostende, founded in 1911, merged in 1981, having never experienced life in the top level. Even then, the newly formed KV Oostende needed a decade to clamber out of Division 3.
A debut campaign in Division 1 in 1993-94 saw KVO finish seventh, just out of the European placings. Two subsequent top-flights stints culminated in relegation.
It was only when former KVO midfielder Frederik Vanderbiest stepped up as player-coach in 2011 that things started to happen. A product of the RWD Molenbeek youth system, Vanderbiest had had a much-travelled career around Belgium’s lesser lights and was in his early thirties when he accepted the post.
KVO made the Division 2 promotional play-offs in 2011-12. A season later, with goals from Laurent Depoitre and Yohan Brouckaert, they won the league by ten points.
Vanderbiest’s Kustboys not only performed creditably in the regular season of their first top-flight campaign but stormed to the Europa League play-offs. Young midfielder Michiel Jonckheere scored in both legs as KVO twice held Kortrijk 2-2 for the right to play in Europe. Jonckheere saved the day at KVO’s Albertparkstadion with a 92nd-minute equaliser. It came down to a penalty shoot-out, ending in a 7-6 victory for the Kustboys.
But it had all been for nothing. Even before the second leg, KVO chairman Marc Coucke had tweeted the news that coach Vanderbiest’s lack of a UEFA Pro Licence would prevent the club from competing in Europe. ‘Our day will come’, he hash-tagged, determinedly.
Coucke, a successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur, had taken over at the start of the season. For 2015-16, brought in former Anderlecht midfielder Yves Vanderhaeghe as coach.
The results were immediate. In August, in front of a near-full Albertpark, KVO beat Vanderhaeghe’s former club 3-1, the goals coming from Knowledge Musona and Gohi Bi Zoro Cyriac. A week later, Musona and Joseph Akpala put paid to Standard – in Liège.
As these African strikers, Zimbabwean, Ivorian and Nigerian respectively, claimed 30 goals between them in the regular season, KVO spent two-thirds of it in Belgium’s top three, 12 rounds at the top of the league.
At the back, Jordan Lukaku, younger brother of Romelu, was a Belgian international while goalkeeper Didier Ovono passed 100 caps for Gabon.
Together, they kept KVO in with the contenders in 2015-16 but a poor showing in the championship play-offs means that European football remained elusive.
With the stadium modernised and renamed the Versluys Arena, the club embarked upon the 2016-17 campaign. With a solid midfield bolstered by Cameroun international Sébastien Siani, KVO made the championship play-offs, a fourth place ensuring a home tie with Genk for a berth in the Europa League. Earlier that spring, they had taken Zulte Waregem to extra-time in the Belgian Cup final, a late Musona penalty leading to spot-kicks – and a vital miss by the Zimbabwean international.
There would be no mistake at the Versluys Arena, KVO overcoming a strong Genk side 3-1 to line up their European debut in 2017-18.
Despite a terrible start to the domestic season, KVO gave a decent account of themselves in Marseille, Siani and Musona netting to bring a 2-4 scoreline to Ostend. Nearly 8,000 packed into the Versluys Arena but the game stayed goalless.
With domestic form still dreadful, Vanderhaeghe’s Bosnian assistant Adnan Čustović stepped in to stave off relegation. Former Bruges star Gert Verheyen did likewise in 2018-19 and now Kåre Ingebrigtsen has been draughted in from trophy-laden Rosenborg Trondheim to change things around on the Belgian coast.
KV Oostende is one of Europe’s most convivial groundhops – the tram from town skirts just inside the seafront a block away.
The major overhaul of 2016 not only transformed the venerable Albertparkstadion but changed its name to the Versluys Arena.
Opened in 1934, ‘Albertpark’ had rarely witnessed top-flight football before the KVO’s current surge.
It was previously the home of AS Oostende, the more prominent of the two clubs who merged to form KVO in 1981 – the new boys just had to move in.
With a capacity of 8,400, including 5,000 seats, the ground met the minimum requirements for the Jupiler Pro League but the building of the E-Tribune the spring of 2016 created more seats in the away corner (Ingang 9, sectors E4-E6 behind the goal, D7-D9 attached to D-Tribune).
Home fans congregate in sectors C1-C3 on Leopold van Tyghmelaan, Ingang 1 and 2.
Neutrals, often holidaying visitors, are recommended to sit in the E-Tribune nearest the sea.
Albertpark is an easy ride on the Kusttram from Ostend station. From the stop Perron 1 alongside, take the tram heading towards De Panne for four stops to Northlaan (every 15min, journey time 14min). You’ll see the stadium floodlights to your left as the tram arrives at the Northlaan stop.
The ticket office behind C-Tribune at the stadium opens Mon 2-5pm, Tue, Wed, Fri 10am-5pm, Thur 10am-7pm, Sat of a home-game weekend 10am-noon. For major games, derbies and championship play-offs, ID is required.
Online sales require a log-in process.
Prices hover around €25-€30 in most areas of the ground, €10-€15 for under-16s.
The club shop is in the same building as the ticket office (see above) and operates the same hours. The best souvenirs are €3 sunglasses, in red, yellow or green, ideal for the beach. Current second kit is an all-red number.
The Versluys Arena is surrounded by bars and restaurants, particularly on the nearby tram-lined main road.
On one side of the Northlaan tram stop, a row of mainly upscale eateries includes the Casa Del Mar, De Golf, Restaurant Den Artisjok and the Restaurant Boucquez. All focus on serving quality food to people spending the day at the nearby golf course or beach a block away. None have any football affiliation but would be happy to serve you a beer or glass of wine – Casa Del Mar is more suited to an informal crowd.
On the stadium side of the main road, El Rey is not stuffy either, serving beer, wine and €12 weekday lunches. Lobster is the speciality – there’ll be a tank full of them. Erwin and Mireille have been running the place with a friendly touch for nearly 30 years.
On the beach itself, the only nearby bar and best pre-match choice is L’Empereur, at the corner of Luxemburgstraat and Zeedijk. With TVs in each corner and decorative snatches of Anderlecht mauve, it’s football-oriented, its Cristal beer best sipped on the sea-facing terrace.
At the ground, the spacious Club 31 behind the main stand on Leopold van Tyghmelaan is a great, great stadium bar, decked out in atmospheric colour photos from KVO’s history. Note, too, the sticker on the door, ‘No Sweat, No Beer’, a local take on the ‘No Sweat, No Glory’ motto of Club Bruges down the road.