I have finally been to see a football match in Belgium. Shocking that it's taken me so long, but there you have it. The offer, from someone who works at the same place as C, of a free ticket in the press box to see Anderlecht vs. AEK Athens was just too good an offer to turn down.
Okay, so it was only a Europa League match, a competition English teams reluctantly take part in, but it was a cracking evening.
I've always been intrigued by football in Belgium. For example, Anderlecht, a team who plays in a Brussels suburb, a bilingual city, with a very Flemish-sounding name: would the supporters be French or Dutch-speakers, or a mixture of both? Which language would the chants be in? What would the quality of the football be like?
We arrived just over an hour before kick-off and headed towards the stadium. Just outside it, the usual mingling of fans, congregating by bars and downing several plastic cups' worth of Jupiler. I guess it makes sense not to serve the really strong stuff to a load of football supporters.
There were also several burger vans and even more friterie vans. If frites were ever designed to be eaten at a social occasion, a football match would certainly be it. Breaking with tradition, I had a couple of beers, and then had to satisfy the munchies with a portion of frites, absolutely smothered in ketchup, and against my better judgement, a burger.
Not the kind of thing I would ever normally eat, but I was feeling pretty peckish and the meat looked meaty enough to me. Wasn't too bad, actually.
As "press," we were of course entitled to go to the press room, where there were complimentary baguettes, soft drinks and coffee. Everyone got a press pack, which contained all the facts and figures about the two teams, and the head-to-head stats. We also got the team sheet printed out.
The room had a door which led straight out onto the press box: two long rows designated solely for journalists with space for them to put their laptops on, sockets, and free wifi. It was funny seeing rows of laptops with different journalists from various media outlets tapping away during the match. Reminded me that, for a while, this was the job I wanted to do. Until I realised that it'd take away my enjoyment from actually watching the match. Or until I realised that politics was far more interesting!
I have to say, it was one of the coolest ways to spend the evening. It was so much fun, especially as I was the only one not doing any work, and breaking protocol by secretly taking photos everytime a club official's back was turned. No photos allowed for the written media. Seemed a bit bizarre to me. And you know me, not one to follow stupidly made rules.
The match itself was a pretty decent game: 4-1 to Anderlecht. The Greeks were never really in it, and they didn't do justice to their several hundred fans, housed in one of the top tiers, and who sang continuously the whole evening. The homes fans also made a good bit of noise too.
Considering this was only the opening match of the competition, the atmosphere was amazing: almost non-stop chanting. Most of the Anderlecht songs were indeed sung in English. Nice. Find a happy medium. Avoid offending either French or Dutch-speaking supporters and stick to English. We after all do have all the best chants.
Announcements over the tannoy were however made in both French and Dutch. What a pain having to do that all the time. Before and after the game I tried to listen to what language was being spoken by the fans, and it was probably a 50-50 French-Dutch split.
You see, sport brings everyone together.