Ostend is only just over an hour from Brussels by train, but to most British people, it is a ferry port. It is also home to a statue of Marvin Gaye, which may seem somewhat bizarre to the casual onlooker. In fact, you might be tempted to use the title of one of Gaye’s biggest albums, “What’s going on?”.
Gaye spent part of his life in Ostend in the 1980, about the same time that Koninklijke Voetbalclub Oostende was formed. The club was created from a merger of V.G. Oostende (est. 1904) and A.S. Oostende (1911).
Unlike many British coastal resorts, Ostend looks vibrant and well-kept. The air is thick with the smell of Moules-Frites and it all looks quite prosperous. The local football team has never had it so good, for KVO, as they are known, are in their second season as a top flight club, having won promotion in 2013.
We were slightly misled about the location of the club’s Albertpark Stadion. After walking around the streets of Ostend for half an hour, we were finally ushered in the right direction by a friendly local, a woman who claimed to be “very old” and once learning we were British, told us of her time in London in the swinging sixties and her fondness for Carnaby Street. “You have come to watch KVO?,” she asked. “I live in Ostend and I wouldn’t dream of going to watch them…you must be a bit crazy,” she laughed, adding that she had heard that KVO had received some good sponsorship this last few months.
A tramride later, we were walking towards KVO’s piecemeal-constructed stadium. As we arrived, we saw a procession of red and yellow flag-bearing supporters from Mechelen, KVO’s opponents.
With Belgium divided between the Dutch speaking Flemings (Vlamingen) and the French-speaking Walloons. The Flemings account for 60% of Belgium’s population. This makes for some confusion for the uninformed. Most football teams, for example, have two names, depending on where you are in the country. Mechelen, for instance, are also known as Malines if you read a newspaper in Brussels.
We eventually gained entry to the stadium which is an odd assortment of stands, but nevertheless has a good atmosphere, especially when you have a group of away fans like Mechelen’s at one end. At 20 euros a ticket, it seemed like good value.
We all know about Belgium’s “golden generation” of passport-wielding internationals, but this game was life without the red devils, strictly domestic fare. Both teams had started the season in fairly average form. In 2013-14, KVO won the right to enter the Europa League after winning the play-offs at the end of the Belgian season. They finished ninth in the regular season, but such is the structure of Belgium football, the teams finishing 7th to 14th enter a play-off competition to determine the Europa League place. KVO earned the right to play fourth place Zlute Waregem in the Europa League Test Match, but as they did not have a license to host European football, the place was handed to ZW. Mechelen were also in that Europa Play-off competition after finishing 13th in the regular season.
KVO kicked-off the season with two 0-2 defeats at the hands of Lierse and Anderlecht, but then won 1-0 at Cercle Brugge thanks to a first-half goal from midfielder Franck Berrier. Mechelen opened 2014-15 with a 3-1 win against Genk, but lost their next two, 1-3 at Gent and 1-2 at home to Kortrijk. So the meeting between the two sides, on a blustery Saturday evening (we were literally a couple of hundred metres from the coast) was a chance to kick-start the season for both.
KVO had two familar names. Jordan Lukaku, in defence, is the brother of the more celebrated Romelu, and goalkeeper Didier Ovono is a Gabon international and played in an Olympic game against Mexico two years earlier at Coventry’s lamented Ricoh Arena. Ovono, now 31, is a popular figure at KVO. He didn’t have much to do against a shot-shy Mechelen side.
But then neither did his opposite number, Wouter Biebaux. Neither side created much in the first half, it was 45-plus minutes before anyone had a decent chance. But both sets of fans were terrific – Mechelen’s troupe was in fine voice, singing You’ll never walk alone and an odd version of Culture Club’s Kharma Chameleon. The home fans sang the virtue of De Kustboys.
Mercifully, two goals came in the second half, and they were totally out of sync with the quality of the game. Both owed much to the substitutions made by KVO’s coach Frederik Vanderbiest. The first goal, after 70 minutes, was a glancing header by Niels de Schutter from a well-placed free-kick by Jonathan Wilmet, who had been on the pitch for just a minute.
Three minutes later, another substitute, 34 year-old Bjorn Ruytinx, who joined KVO in the close season from OH Leuven, was sent clear by Costa Rican John Ruiz and his left–foot strike beat Biebaux.
There were no more goals, so KVO held on to beat Mechelen 2-0. You sensed that both sides are a long way from being contenders to teams like Anderlecht, but what a good atmosphere at the Albertpark Stadion! Who needs red devils for that?