A permanent fixture in Belgium’s top league for most of the last two decades, KVC Westerlo have done well to stay the equal of far bigger clubs with far bigger budgets in the same division. Based in a town of only 4,000-plus inhabitants, without a railway station, at a stadium surrounded by little but fields, Westerlo have risen from decades in the lower and regional Antwerp leagues.
The immediate past has not been so kind to De Kemphanen (‘The Ruffs’). Relegation in 2012 was followed by a return to the Jupiler Pro League in 2014 – but not to sparkling form back in the elite.
With a founding year given as 1933 but with roots going back to 1917, the original Westerlo Sport became VC Westerlo when merged back with the breakaway Sportkring Westerlo during World War II.
Winning the Second Provincial Antwerp League in 1959-60, VC Westerlo spent most of the next decade in the higher regional tier before joining the lowest national division in 1968.
After a slip back to regional football, the Yellow and Blues revived to make the Second Division in 1993, which is when the story really starts. Galvanised under ex-Belgian international midfielder Jos Heyligen, who played out his last season at VC Westerlo’s Het Kuipje, The Ruffs gained a first promotion to the top tier in 1997.
By then, VC Westerlo had become KVC Westerlo, having gained the royal epithet Koninklijke. In the following decade, mainly under bullish Belgian legend Jan Ceulemans, the club reached untold heights, regularly finishing a single-figure league place and winning its first major silverware, the Belgian Cup in 2001.
Fittingly, it was Jef Delen who scored the only goal at the Stade Roi Baudouin in Brussels, against Lommel of the second division – the winger would go on to play for Westerlo for more than a decade, becoming club captain in 2006. Driving the midfield that day was Lukáš Zelenka, in his last year at Westerlo before going back to Sparta Prague and becoming a Czech international.
Though the subsequent European debut was short and sweet, goalless in two legs against Hertha Berlin, the home match more a battle against the elements, Westerlo maintained a strong presence in the domestic game.
Ironically, the Belgian Cup triumph and entry to the UEFA Cup had been achieved without Toni Brogno. Westerlo’s prolific striker, winner of seven Belgian caps from 1998, had at been sold to Sedan in 2000 after finishing equal top league scorer. His return to Het Kuipje in 2002 wasn’t as successful but Brogno remains a key figure of the club’s golden era.
After Brogno came Nigerian Patrick Ogunsoto, Colombian Jaime Alfonso Ruiz and Brazilian Paulo Henrique, whose goals against Anderlecht and Cercle Bruges in the Belgian Cup took Westerlo to another final in 2011.
With Ceulemans still coach, Delens still captain (albeit one now playing from the back) and Bart Deelkens in goal, as he had been back in 2001, Westerlo had the experience but not the quality to match Standard Liège at the Stade Roi Baudouin.
The 2-0 defeat at least provided passage to the Europa League, Westerlo having just enough to beat Turku but not Young Boys of Berne.
The end of that 2011-12 season was also the end of an era. Unable to prevent the club’s relegation after 15 years, Ceulemans bowed out of top-flight management altogether.
Dutchman Dennis van Wijk, as a player a League Cup winner with Norwich, managed to get Westerlo back up as champions in 2014 but De Kemphanen have hardly set the top flight alight since. Despite tenacious defenders such as ex-Carlisle’s Jordan Mustoe and Nemanja Miletić, born in the divided city of Mitrovica, Westerlo’s poor goals-against record may yet see another relegation before the end of 2016-17.
The second smallest stadium in Belgium’s top division in 2016-17, the 8,035-capacity Het Kuipje centrepieces a small complex of smaller pitches on the other side of the main road from the centre of Westerlo.
This was where Sportkring De Bist Westerlo, a forerunner of today’s KVC, played shortly after World War I. The current ground feels modest for top-tier football – it’s a far cry from Ghent’s Ghelamco Arena or Genk’s Cristal Arena.
With all four stands covered, Het Kuipje features a mix of standing and seating places. The home end, Tribune 2, has a traditional terrace behind the goal, in front of a row of seated sections. Opposite, Tribune 4 is all-seated. Away fans are allocated two sectors, one seated (Vak H), one standing (Vak I), in Tribune 3, accessed via the visiting supporters’ entrance by the training pitches. Opposite is the main stand, Tribune 1, with the ticket office and club secretariat behind.
The stadium has its own stop, Stadion, on the hourly No.510 bus that runs from Mechelen (from perron 11, journey time 70min) and Heist-Op-Den-Berg (from perron 2, journey time 27min). The last bus back to Heist/Mechelen is after 10pm.
A taxi to or from Heist-Op-Den-Berg, with a direct train connection to/from Antwerp, should be €30.
The stop before Stadion, Westerlo Dorp, is close to the main square, its four-star hotel and bars – it’s a 10min walk from Grote Markt to the stadium.
Tickets are sold up to a fortnight in advance for the next home game from the club secretariat (Mon-Wed & Fri 10am-noon, 2pm-5pm, Thur 2pm-8pm) in the main stand. To contact the office for information, call +32 14 54 52 88 or email email@example.com.
There also online sales with registration, both in English.
Gates average 5,000-6,000, so availability is usually not a problem – although the game with Zulte-Waregem in November 2016 was close to a sell-out.
Tickets are also sold on the day from 30min before kick off from the windows at the main stand.
Prices are €20-€25 in the main stand, €15-€20 for a seat elsewhere, €12.50 to stand. Youngsters aged 12-15 are charged €7.50-€12.50 to sit, €6 to stand, under-12s €3-€5 to sit, €2.50 to stand.
Away fans are charged €20/€12.50 to sit/stand, 12-15s €10/€6, under-12s €5/€2.50.
Open match days 1hr before kick-off, at half-time and for 30min after the game, plus Monday eve (8pm-9pm) during the season, the club shop at the stadium sells klaxons, flags, cigarette lighters, trilbies, cowboy hats and beer glasses, all bearing the KVC logo and/or blue-and-yellow.
Across from the stadium on the main De Merodedreef road, ’t hoeveke is an almost too-smart café-bar that specialises in Belgian beers, including Westelse Tripel, brewed a few hundred metres away in Zammel. In summer, a large terrace comes into its own, perfectly situated for a pre-match ale.
Slightly further along stands the equally spiffy Brasserie Stoffel, open Tue-Sun, more a venue for a four-course menu (€16-€18) than a pre-match pub, but it’s happy to serve draught Leffe, bottled Kempisch Vuur from nearby Zandhoven and its own house aperitif.
Het Kuipje has its own stadium bar, one that does justice to Belgium’s fine tradition of stadium bars. Themacafé ’t Kuipje (daily 11am-last guest) is done out in dark wood, offset by tasteful black-and-white photos of Westerlo match action and modern-day line-ups. The café has upped its game on the culinary front since Dirk Van den Putte took over a couple of years ago but essentially this is a sports bar with live TV action, Tongerlo beer (once made at the nearby abbey) and plenty of football chat. The venue also runs a separate chip van on match days, proferring cones of perfect Belgian frites topped with mayonnaise.