Royal Antwerp: From 'Middle Ages' to Champions League via Man United link-up

The National traces the journey of the Belgian club as they prepare to face European giants Barcelona

Royal Antwerp player Toby Alderweireld in action during the Uefa Champions League play-offs. EPA
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Antwerp, Belgium’s second-largest city of 1.2 million, should be able to support a major football club. Europe’s second-largest port with a diverse population, and hub of the world’s diamond trade, Antwerp staged the 1920 Olympic Games and boasts one of the world’s finest rail stations.

For a long time, the city’s main football club, Royal Antwerp, justified their status. Known as “the Great Old” since they were Belgium’s oldest football club after being founded by an English student as Antwerp Cricket Club in 1880 and given an English name, they were four-time Belgian champions between 1929 and 1957. As recently as 1993, they reached the European Cup Winners’ Cup final at Wembley.

But while Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Standard Liege and Mechelen dominated domestically and punched above their weight in Europe, Royal Antwerp had little money and floundered in Flanders. They were even being eclipsed by smaller neighbours Beerschot, who brought through mostly local boys including Mousa Dembele, Toby Alderweireld, Radja Nainggolan, Thomas Vermaelen, Victor Wanyama and Jan Vertonghen.

Antwerp were missing the talent on their own doorstep, yet a link-up with Manchester United, which began in 1998 and lasted until 2013, saw young United players sent to Belgium to gain football experience and general independence.

Jonny Evans, John O’Shea, Luke Chadwick, Fraizer Campbell, Tom Heaton, Danny Simpson, Ryan Shawcross and Darron Gibson were among many young United players who moved to Belgium.

Sir Alex Ferguson was fully invested in the partnership with United sending coaches to help and even coach the side. Antwerp profited from having young talents in their team, as did the United youngsters from experience in the Belgian first division and a different culture.

If United liked a non-EU player, then he could be placed with Antwerp. The partnership was chosen partly because of Belgium’s liberal immigration rules for non-EU workers, yet it ended up being more about United sending players from Manchester.

The players found a decaying Bosuil stadium straight out of the 1950s.

“There lurks an eerie, dusty gloom,” wrote Simon Inglis in 1990’s Football Grounds of Europe. “Those terraces still in use are composed of gravel with concrete footings… while cracked slabs on upper, fenced-off sections reveal gaps showing through to concrete ramparts far below. It adds to a grim nightmare of neglect and shoddy construction – possibly the worst at any senior stadium in Western Europe.”

The hardcore fans, who numbered around 8,000 in a stadium that had regularly hosted Belgium internationals but hadn’t held one since 1988, were extremely loud and passionate. They were also watching second-division football. The United players helped gain one promotion, though the deal worked out better for some rather than others.

“I went on loan to Antwerp, when five of the United lads were there,” said current Salford City manager Neil Wood. “Dong [Fangzhuo] had been there but was leaving and [coach] Warren Joyce asked me to go there and play as a 10 behind Fraizer Campbell. I liked that idea of getting in the pockets and setting him up.

“Someone like him was so fast and sharp that he’d make your balls look great. I went to Belgium and played in a friendly after two days. I was doing well in the first 20 minutes; I looked half decent… when a guy snapped my leg, my cruciate. So that was the end of that. I was out for six months."

Kirk Hilton, who now runs a football school in the UAE, recalled his time there: “I needed to be playing a level above Under-19s and I was asked if I was interested in going to Antwerp,” he said. “I knew that Ronnie Wallwork and Danny Higginbotham had done well there so I was up for moving.

Fans light flares in the stands before a Europa League game between Royal Antwerp and Frankfurt at the redeveloped Bosuil Stadium in September, 2021. AP

“It was the right choice and I played first-team football in front of good crowds. Games had a competitive edge; it was a good experience living in a different country and I played the best football of my career. I played with Luke Chadwick and we were promoted to the Belgian first division. Antwerp asked me back for a second year and I was up for that, playing against teams like Anderlecht. I always felt looked after there."

Gibson also had a largely positive experience. “To play first-team football was obviously the reason to go over and it was great to be part of the team and play week-in, week-out in competitive action in front of crowds," the former Ireland international said. "The standard of football was quite good, too, and the lads were playing for their wages each week, so it was competitive. We did well, we made it to the play-offs that year, but we didn’t make it up.

“Some of it [life in Belgium] was enjoyable, some of it wasn’t. I didn’t speak the language and we didn’t know people. I went over with Fraizer Campbell and Ryan Shawcross and we would get bored, so we just stuck together and concentrated on playing football.”

Yet between 2005 and 2017, Royal Antwerp were a second division team. When The National went there in 2012, it found that little had changed from a previous visit in 1998. The people at the club were friendly, the fans enthusiastic, but what can a football team do without money? Average crowds were down to 5,000.

It all started to change in 2017. Real estate magnate Paul Gheysens took charge and began investing – €200 million so far – figures other Belgian clubs struggle to compete with. Antwerp ran at a loss, of €28 million in season 2021/22. “The Great Old” finished 8th, 6th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 3rd to re-establish themselves as one of Belgium’s main powers and European regulars again for the first time since a 10-2 aggregate defeat to Newcastle United in 1994.

Royal Antwerp manager Mark van Bommel at a press conference ahead of their Champions League play-off first-leg match against AEK Athens last month. AFP

With investment came signings, but it wasn’t just about money. Nainggolan, long in Rome and Milan, joined his hometown club for the 2021/22 season. He left after being suspended for driving with an expired license and smoking an electronic cigarette - on the bench before a game.

Sports director Marc Overmars brought his compatriot Mark van Bommel in as manager in 2022. Alderweireld returned to play for his hometown club and remains club captain. He would win their first title in 66 years, scoring in the 94th minute in an away game at Genk and sprinting to away fans as Antwerp beat both Genk and Brussels-based Union Saint-Gilloise to the title. Antwerp also won the Belgian Cup to make it a double.

Vincent Janssen, another veteran, was a key player up front. Arthur Vermeeran, 18, is already a star midfielder. Goalkeeper Jean Butez kept 20 clean sheets last season. Ecuadorean midfielder Willian Pacho did so well that he earned a €16 million move to Eintracht Frankfurt.

The old stadium has been rebuilt on two sides and expanded with towering stands full of red seats; crowds average 13,862, yet the capacity is restricted. The venue will eventually hold 30,000.

In August, Royal Antwerp qualified for the group stage of the Champions League for the first time having defeated Greek champions AEK Athens home and away. They have been grouped with Barcelona, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk and begin with a game in Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium on Tuesday.

It’s a long way from even a decade ago. Paul Bistiaux, a lifelong fan and lawyer who saw his first game aged six and became the club’s general secretary between 1992 and 2015, remembers the darker times.

“The first 12 years were OK,” he told The National. “I mean, I went to Wembley to see us in a European final. The last 10 years have been a constant battle for survival with hardly any fun. The miracle to me was that we survived the most difficult period of the club’s history. At some points, we were bottom of the second division. Angry fans in the middle of winter, the lot. I felt all alone. Success has many fathers; I was the one who faced the questions from the media.

"Quite simply, the club didn’t adapt to the way football was evolving like other Belgian clubs did and there was a lot of bad blood. What we were seeing was in no way comparable with what we have today. We’ve gone from football in the Middle Ages to the 21st century. I’m no longer working at Royal Antwerp but it’s still my club and I’m happy for them.”

Bistiaux was responsible for the link-up with United.

“I look back with pride and joy,” he said. “We had great young players and, on a personal level, I became closer to my second club, Manchester United. I always felt so well received at United and Sir Alex Ferguson would come to Antwerp.”

And there’s still a small Manchester United link. Antwerp-born defender Ritchie de Laet, 34, played six games for United around 2010. He’s played in every Royal Antwerp game this season and is set to make his Champions League debut on Tuesday night in Barcelona.

Updated: September 19, 2023, 6:03 AM