Just over a decade ago I visited the Bosuilstadion the home of Belgian football’s oldest club – Royal Antwerp.
The Bosuil Stadium was opened in 1923, making it one of the oldest stadiums in Belgium. Over the years a lot of reconstructive work has been done. At one stage the stadium held 60,000 fans but by its 90th year little more than 13,373 spots were available for fans.
Many people think of Belgium as a country of imposing baroque buildings and gothic cathedrals – the Grand Place of Bruxelles fame. On the other hand just lurking behind that characteristic there is a tale of ugly buildings, 1970’s architecture and some of the most hideous kitsch you might find anywhere.
That contrast just about summed up the Bosuil Stadion appearance wise in 2013.
The stadium was a shabby mess of ageing old architecture glory and modernistic disaster. The open surrounds were like the unkempt back garden of an unsold house. The wide approaches that led to Tribune One (the archetypical main stand) were in more need of flattening than upkeep.
There was sense in that old mainstand when you stood outside at half time of being amongst gardeners allotments – a messy, lazy selection of garden sheds. In some places the stand reminded you of an outdoor toilet – desperate and not at all welcoming to most inquisitive visitors nor benefitting of such a club.
Aesthetically ugly and situated in a residential area of Antwerp, the popular idiom ‘It’s not what’s on the outside that counts, it’s what’s on the inside,’ rang true for many Antwerp fans. This is a club, after all, whom have always celebrated the ‘Great Old’ nickname for which they are known.
With an ageing monolith as a home stadium the Bosuil was hugely symbolic of that ‘old’ title if not the ‘great’ part.
By 2013 Antwerp were a second division team just 20 years after the club’s greatest achievement – appearing in the 1993 UEFA Cup Winners Cup Final. The Bosuil Stadium by then was a shabby mess of gloomy concrete, rusty corrugated roofs, unkempt walkways and stands in drastic need of upgrade.
The fusion of styles boggled the mind: not so much baroque, Art Deco and futuristic more brick houses, garden sheds with some token modernity added to patch up what was a stadium falling apart.
That ‘modernity’ came by way of the Vic Mees stand that was added in 2001 and positioned as a means of offering the modern football fan ‘all the comfort they can expect from a football evening’. In truth it was a compact stand that barely did justice to a man titled ‘Mr Antwerp’. It held 3,000 fans and was characterised by a wall of plexiglass and nets behind which stood visiting fans.
At the other end of the stadium stood what was called ‘the Business Grandstand’ or ‘Business Seats’.
This was the south end and nicknamed ‘the aquarium’ which tells you everything about its appearance and how it looked to spectators.
Opened in 1991, this end had the appearance of a cricket lodge equipped with comfortable seats for business partners, sponsors and VIPs. Despite holding 800 its limitations were there for all to see – it had a place in the 1990’s but was hardly fit for the modern era.
For fans of the ‘reds’ however the Bosuil Stadium was and has always been ‘home sweet home.’
If the bulldozers were moving in you could imagine the local fans standing in front of the machinery begging for the structures to be left untouched.
Most loved of these stands was ‘Tribune Two’ a sweeping roofed side terracing with wooden benches deeply imbued with local football feeling and a home fans favourite.
The key to change was Royal Antwerp’s promotion back to the Belgian Pro League in 2017.
The local municipality recognised the need for redevelopment both from a civic responsibility perspective and for the benefit of the growing residential areas that surrounded the stadium.
Noise, light pollution, and parking were a serious problem.
Additionally, the club and the local mayor wanted to encourage more supporters to travel to matches by bicycle and public transport. Moreover, those who came by car would use – it was hoped – new P&R facilities in or near the stadium.
For the football club the reappearance of the team at the top table of Belgian football meant a need for a refreshed training centre and practice fields. The club’s senior and development teams had pitches outside the stadium but these needed imbued with the latest in technical innovation and more importantly loving care.
Ghelamco were behind the redevelopment – a 100% family owned company created in 1985 by Paul Gheysens a businessman with a key stakeholding in Antwerp.
From the outside, the new glazed stand might resemble just another office building. But the structure hides an immense amount of floor space inside, with the entire structure optimised in terms of cost and material consumption.
Three of the stands at the Bosuilstadion were rebuilt ensuring that the ground is now fully enclosed.
The single-roof structure is the centre piece of the plans, a move that improved the atmosphere and reduced the noise pollution impact on local residents.
To appease the home fans the historical east side of the Bosuil (Tribune 2) was retained but received a facelift both inside and out. Painted seats, new(ish) colour and new access pathways meant this stand – much loved by the home fans – remained as a place of pilgrimage.
But with redevelopment has come a wider dispersal of fans around the stadium and an increase in season ticket sales. An average of 14,373 now watch home games and the club is improving each season in UEFA football including appearances in the Group Stages of the Europa League.
Pulled back from the brink the new Bosuil is not so much Vitesse Arnhem’s GelreDome but more something you might expect to see in the English Championship – new stands on top of old. The club car pool has went from a few Ford Mondeo’s to a fleet of BMW’s.
The dusty gloom of the old exteriors and the sullen old mainstand have now gone. And, while it’s easy to reminisce about how the Bosuil once was, the spacious walkways, new colours and gleeming facilities outside feel just about right and deserving of a club of this stature.