A bustling little town of some 40,000 people between Ghent and Kortrijk, Waregem has prominently featured in the Belgian game since the local club reached the top tier just over a decade ago.
This club, Zulte-Waregem, was created in 2001 to represent two communities. About a third of the size of its 21st-century partners, Zulte sits north-east of Waregem, just inside the border with East Flanders – you can walk between the two, along Zultseweg and Waregemstraat, a distance of 6km and less than a euro in petrol.
Of the two, Waregem, tucked inside the border with West Flanders, had by far the stronger football tradition – but its flagship club KSV, UEFA Cup semi-finalists in 1986, would have gone out of business had it not been for the merger with Zulte VV.
Based at KSV’s old ground, the Regenboogstadion (‘Rainbow Stadium’), a short walk from Waregem’s main square of Markt – keeping the nickname of ‘Essevee’ from KSV but while having the club office in Zulte – this new club won the Belgian Cup and finished runners-up, just, to Anderlecht in the league in 2013.
When European competition demanded, Zulte-Waregem have had to turn to Bruges, Ghent and even Brussels to host the likes of Newcastle, Wigan and PSV Eindhoven. That situation should change after the current four-phase rebuilding of the Regenboogstadion, the main stand due to be demolished in 2017.
As is so typical in Belgian football, the history of the predecessors of Zulte-Waregem is a convoluted one, resembling one of those intertwined family trees they used to devise to illustrate the genealogy of rock bands.
Starting with Waregem, KSV (‘Koninklijke Sportvereniging Waregem’) were themselves an amalgamation. Waereghem Sportif had been created in 1925, became the more Flemish-friendly Waregem Sportief in 1945 and merged with Red Star Waregem in 1946. Little is known of these clubs – they don’t feature in any Belgian league tables between the wars.
The newly merged SV Waregem soon gained royal approval, granted to all football clubs of 25-year vintage, duly honoured KSV happy to link their lineage back to 1925. They moved into the newly opened Regenboogstadion in 1957.
KSV made the top tier in 1966 and became major contenders from the late 1960s onwards. Beating Atlético Madrid on away goals in the Fairs’ Cup of 1968-69, the Waregem side won the Belgian Cup in 1974. Their heyday came in the mid-1980s when, with the likes of midfielder Philippe Desmet and striker Daniel Veyt, Belgian internationals both, KSV beat Osasuna, AC Milan and Hajduk Split to reach the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. The home ties were hosted at the Regenboogstadion but the greatest triumph, the Desmet and Veyt scoring to beat Milan 2-1, took place at the San Siro. Players in red-and-black shirts that night included Ray Wilkins, Paolo Rossi and a young Paolo Maldini.
Without Desmet, KSV folded 4-0 at 1.FC Köln in the first leg of the semi-final – older locals would remember the 3-3 return match at the Regenboog.
KSV were relegated to the second tier in 1996 then the third in 1999. They would have gone to the wall had the 2001 merger not been arranged.
The history of football is far more modest. Zulte Sportief, formed in 1950, merged with SK Zulte, formed in 1947, in 1976 to create Zultse VV. The new club had just missed out on promotion to the second tier, in 2000, before the merger came along.
As mergers go, Zulte-Waregem have been one of the most successful in the Belgian game. Once the Regenboogstadion is fixed up, then Waregem will be a European destination in its own right.
Waregem is 80km (50 miles) from Brussels, 90km (56 miles) from the airport at Zaventem. There is no direct train from the airport to Waregem – you have to change at Brussels-Midi and/or Antwerp. Journey time 1hr 30min, single €19. From Brussels-Midi, terminus for the Eurostar, a single to Waregem is €12, journey time 1hr.
From Charleroi-Sud, closest station to Charleroi airport, you have to change at Brussels-Midi and sometimes Ghent to reach Waregem.
Waregem station is on the west side of the ring road that encircles the town centre, a 10min walk to the main square of Markt, a 15-20min walk to the stadium, amid parkland and lakes just inside the south side of the ring.
De Lijn run local buses (tickets €3 on board) though they’re pretty infrequent. Waregem is walkable.
For a taxi, AB Drive (+32 56 60 57 00/+32 494 63 86 86) has its office on Wollestraat right in town.
As with many of Belgium’s smaller provincial towns, Waregem has few accommodation options close to the centre. In fact, there’s only one: Ambassade, an independent, mid-range lodging tucked in its own little courtyard halfway down Stationstraat between the station and the town centre. Rooms are comfortable enough, the breakfast decent, the bar and sauna a bonus.
Outside town, at the junction of Gentseweg and Vijfseweg that runs 1km away from the centre behind Waregem station, are two basic options: homely Anna’s Place, and two-star Hotel De Keizer opposite, with basic rooms in the €70 range. You would be better off splashing out a little more for one of 13 rooms in the Hotel De Jager, 5min walk further from town. As well comfort and cleanliness, you get access to an in-house tavern with plenty of TV football.
Also outside town but on the stadium side, 2km from the ground, De Peracker has standard and loft rooms, set in a former factory and with its own restaurant (weekday evenings only). A lakeside setting is a plus – but public transport is scarce.
Bars cluster around the main square of Markt. At No.30, Tommy’s has a table-football table in Essevee colours and its own five-a-side team; De Gilde (No.26) is done out in old beer ads; and Bridge (No.24), with a TV showing football over the doorway.
Once run by an ex-player De Klauwaert at No.23 puts up a maxi-screen on its terrace for big match nights – it closes on Wednesdays.
On the corner, age-old ’t Labierint also screens major games but is otherwise a popular meeting place decorated with black-and-white photos of vintage Waregem.
Directly opposite the station, Bar Hermanos (Stationstraat 197) is arguably the trendiest spot in town, with a younger, urban clientele, and party-minded with it.