Or shall I say "Die Eupener schreiben Fussballhistorie"?
Yesterday 16th October may not have been a particularly remarkable day in terms of football, but in Belgium –whilst many people won’t even realise even when they follow Belgian football– a bit of history was written. KAS Eupen, newly promoted to the top division, booked its first ever win on the highest level. This also means the first ever time in Belgian football history (which goes back almost 120 years) that a German-speaking club wins a game in the highest division. Because, for all who didn’t realise, KAS Eupen indeed is Germanophone. When they promoted to the top division last season through the play-offs in second division, it marked the first time in nearly 120 years of Belgian football that a club from the German speaking minority promoted to the highest level. A portrait of the first ever German-speaking club in the Belgian top flight.
Before we go digging into the history of the football club, we first need to look into the complex political history of Belgium. Because how could a German speaking club ever get into the Belgian top division? When Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands in 1831 the country was bilingual: Dutch and French. While French was the dominant elitist language, we can more or less state that Dutch was spoken in the northern half of the country (present day Flanders) while French was spoken in the southern half of the country (present day Wallonia). Brussels, the capital, is de jure bilingual French-Dutch even when French is still the dominant language in the capital today. German was not an official language of Belgium when the country was founded and Eupen was a German city at that point.
Then came World War I which officially ended in 1918 with a German defeat. In the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had to transfer sovereignity over a small territory near the Belgian border to Belgium as compensation for the damage done during the war. These villages included Eupen. This area, usually called "Oostkantons" in Belgium, was Belgian territory ever since and German became the third official language of Belgium. The area nowadays consists of 9 communities that are Germanophone with linguistic facilities for the French speaking minority. The area has its own political status: while it is an integral part of Wallonia, it has its own government under the name of the Belgian Germanophone Community (Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft Belgiens). Eupen is the capital of this territory near the easternmost borders of Belgium. The city is home to approximately 19000 people, while the German-speaking community as a whole has just over 73000 inhabitants. About 95% of those indeed has German as mothertongue. The tiny area not only has its own parliament, but also has its own newspapers (Grenz Echo most notably), own radio and TV station (the German-speaking branch of the public TV station is called BRF (Belgischer Rundfunk).
Eupen is quite a nice city. Part of the city is downhill near the Vesder river, while part of the city lies on a hill. The city is very green and has some cosy shopping streets and taverns with terraces in the city center. While all street signs are in both German and French, German is the dominant language.
German-speaking Belgium, as tiny as it may be, is quite sports-mad. In sports such as volleyball and handball, Germanophone clubs have played in the highest division (Eynatten and Sankt-Vith for example) and often had higher number of spectators than other clubs in these sports’ leagues in Belgium. However, in football there was still an emptyness. The football fans in German-speaking Belgium did not really have a club they could affiliate with for a long time and thus went across the border to watch Bundesliga football in Germany (and with a lot of clubs in the Ruhrpott area close to the border, they had plenty of choice: Alemannia Aachen, 1.FC Köln, VfL Bochum, MSV Duisburg, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke ’04, Fortuna Düsseldorf, … plenty of choice). The problem was, for a long time, that there was no succesful club in Belgium that was profiling itself as German-speaking, while the German-speaking minority wanted a club that really represented their linguistic community in Belgian football. KAS Eupen may finally fill this gap.
Football was played in Eupen already before the city was transferred from Germany to Belgium in the Versailles Treaty. In 1908 two clubs were formed in the city: FC Fortuna Eupen 1908, and Eupener Ballspielverein 1908. It is unknown to me if any of these two clubs played any role of significance in German football, but I assume not because otherwise it would be well-documented. In 1919 the two clubs merged to form Verein für Jugend und Volkspiele eV Eupen.
It was this club (the result of a merger) that was faced with the Treaty of Versailles in the same year as the merger. Eupen suddenly became a Belgian city. In 1920 the club joined the Belgian football association but, as German was not really well appreciated in post-war Belgium, the club decided to adopt a French name: La Jeunesse d’Eupen (which translates as "The Youth of Eupen"). The club was assigned the matricule number 92 later on. A few months after Jeunesse joined the Belgian FA, a second club was founded in the now-Belgian city: FC Eupen 1920. When the matricule numbers were introduced later (this is a system where each club gets a unique number, usually based on its age), FCE 1920 was assigned number 108. Neither of both clubs played any role of importance in Belgian football, third division football for Jeunesse being their best achievement.
In the late thirties another war began, again with Germany being the occupying force. The war lasted until 1945. The end of the war also marked the last time the sovereignity of the German-speaking Belgian communities was ever a point of doubt, since the Allies beat the Germans in the Second World War, Eupen and the 8 other Belgian German-speaking communities would be and remain Belgian. 1945 also saw another merger in the city when Jeunesse and FC Eupen 1920 merged to form the present day club AS Eupen. However, with German again being quite negatively received in the rest of Belgium as a result of the war, the club again opted for a French name: Alliance Sportive Eupen. Nowadays in case of a merger, one of the merging clubs’ matricule number is adopted by the new club (usually the oldest number of the merging clubs, unless financial troubles of that oldest club dictate to adopt the number of the merging partner). In those days that the last merger in Eupen took place, it was however usual that the both matricule numbers were erased and the newly formed club got assigned a new number. Hence the numbers 92 and 108 disappeared, and AS Eupen took a fresh start with matricule number 4276.
AS Eupen didn’t really play any role of importance, playing mostly in the highest regional league of the province of Liège, or in the lowest nationwide league (4th division). It took until 1970 that the club became a bit succesful as two promotions in a row suddenly saw AS Eupen end up in the 2nd division. In 1974, Alliance Sportive even came close to reaching the highest level of Belgian football as it reached the play-offs for promotion. In these play-offs they finished bottom of the 4 participating clubs however, and the next season the club relegated back to third division. The club immediately won that division and returned to second division, but there it again failed to make impact and relegated again. It would take a long time (over 20 years) before Eupen would reach the Liga (the common term for the two highest divisions) again.
Meanwhile the club, based in the Kehrweg stadium (named after the street it is located in) on top of a hill with quite a panoramic view, saw a second Eupener club being founded only one street away from the Kehrweg. FC Eupen 1963 was founded and was assigned matricule number 6657. While this club never even got as high as AS Eupen did, the club often got more people coming to the games than AS Eupen. Not that they had a loyal fanbase, but AS Eupen simply failed to attract fans and saw many people cross the border to watch German-speaking teams in the German Bundesliga. If FC Eupen 1963, despite being in the regional amateur divisions, got reasonably good crowds for the standard of the regional leagues, then it was because this club really was Germanophone. Finally AS Eupen realised their French name stood in the way of being adopted by their local community. The local football fans wanted their own club but it had to be a club representing the German speaking area of Belgium: a German-speaking club. In 1981 the club decided to finally change the club name in a German name. To maintain the abbreviation AS Eupen, the new name became Allgemeine Sportvereinigung Eupen. In 1995, when the present day club celebrated 50 years of existance, the "royal" adjective became assigned to the club and the name became KAS Eupen: Königliche Allgemeine Sportvereinigung Eupen (translated as "Royal Sports Association Eupen").
A small side-note: the tiny Kehrwegstadion could taste top division football a first time the previous year as well as RFC Liège was no longer allowed to use its own Rocourtstadium due to security reasons. The historical club with matricule nr 4 had to finish the season groundsharing with other clubs. A few games were played in Eupen.
In 2002, KAS Eupen finally returned to the Liga by promoting to second division again. With Kelmis (La Calamine in French) stuck between third and fourth division, KAS Eupen clearly became the nr 1 German-speaking team in Belgium and the only team from the German-speaking minority to reach the Liga. It was quite a good year for the Eupener, as they immediately reached the play-offs for promotion. They finished 2nd out of 4th and nearly missed out on promotion to the top flight.
The next years Eupen was a regular in the second division. I remember I visited the stadium several times with my favourite club KV Oostende. It was, despite the long travel distance, one of the most pleasant away trips of the season. The city itself was very cosy so ideal for a day trip, the Kehrwegstadion was small but cosy and clean, and while the home support was small (often not much above 1000 people) we were always welcomed with a friendliness that was becoming quite rare in Belgian football. Very friendly people, an atmosphere of friendship almost. It was also the only stadium I ever visited in Belgium where the speaker would announce all things in all three languages of the country. Some politically incorrect songs refering to the past of Germany were probably common in the Stadion am Kehrweg as none of the home fans seemed to mind. I was not an AS Eupen fan, but I did respect the club more than our other opponents. I even bought a KAS Eupen scarf at some point. Part of the attraction was maybe the novelty of German-speaking Belgium being represented in the second division. It was a nice novelty to order our entrance tickets in German, and to see banners with German slogans ("Bitte jetzt die 3 Punkte" as an example) in the stadiums.
The season 2008-2009 was a dramatic one for Eupen. The club had a dramatically bad start of the season, was on a relegation spot halfway and looked closer to the anonimity of 3rd division football than to top division football. At that point, coach Danny Ost made his entrance at the Kehrweg and he managed to turn things around, along with some loaned players from Italian reserve teams. An Italian investor at Eupen thought it was a good idea to let young talents get experience in Belgium instead of letting them play reserve teams’ league football in Italy. Eupen won 1-3 in Ostend that season, their first away game that they didn’t lose that season. In the end, Eupen narrowly managed to avoid relegation to 3rd division.
With Ost in charge, the club was unrecognisable the season 2009-2010. Suddenly Eupen played very attractive football and was in the top-4 constantly. They got praised by many opponents for their attractive style of football. The season turned out slightly too long for the Panda’s (the nickname coming from their white-black colours) and in the end they had to drop out of the title race. In that title race, Lierse SK narrowly kept KVSK United Lommel-Overpelt (the present day Lommel United) behind them and Lierse could celebrate the return to the top division.
KAS Eupen again played the play-offs for promotion to the highest league. Opponents were KVSK United which narrowly missed direct promotion, RAEC Mons, and KSV Roeselare who finished bottom in the top flight (excluding the bankrupt Excelsior Mouscron who ceased operations halfway the season). While AS Eupen lost their first game of the play-offs, away to Mons, they started a winning streak the next games. Lommel were beaten twice, both in Eupen and in Lommel, and suddenly the Panda’s were in pole position for promotion. A 2-1 victory on 23/5/2010 against direct concurent Mons saw Eupen secure promotion. History was made: for the first time in the history of Belgian football, the German speaking community would be represented in the highest level. The third play off participation proved to be the good one, and the hype around KAS Eupen within the German-speaking areas grew. Germanophone Belgium was finally represented in the highest division!
Several seasons before that event I already predicted that Eupen had more potential than most second division teams because the German-speaking Belgians are mad about sports. All they needed was a club that represented them, the German speaking people. KAS Eupen finally filled that gap. My words may be prophetic if they manage to survive in the top flight.
People were sceptic initially how a small club from a small city could survive in the highest division. In Eupen the believe was there though. With some Italian reserve teams sending talented young players on loan, a few local purchases, a rebranded logo, … the club was ready for the adventure with one exception: the Stadion am Kehrweg was not yet revamped to meet the criteria for top level football. The government of the German-speaking community promised to take the lion’s share of costs to upgrade the stadium on their account.
So on 31/7/2010 history was made again when KAS Eupen set foot on the field of the impressive stadium of Belgium’s most succesful club, RSC Anderlecht. A tough opening game of the new season, but the history was made regardless of the outcome of the game: the first ever game in the top division including a Germanophone club was a fact. Eupen even looked like making it a remarkable entrance in the top flight when halfway they were leading in Anderlecht 0-1. Costa Dos Santos scored Eupen’s first ever top division goal. In the second half Anderlecht did overcome the 0-1 score and eventually won 4-1. But Eupen nonetheless was there, the first German-speaking club in the top flight was now officially a registered fact, and they did get good comments for their nice playing style.
In the games to come, Eupen had a tough calendar with games versus Ghent, Genk, … But first there was the second game of the season, 7/8/2010. Westerlo travelled to the (not yet upgraded) Kehrweg and the first ever top division game played in German-speaking Belgium was a fact as well. Westerlo did win the game 0-1 although people all agreed Eupen were unlucky to lose the game. The same was said when Ghent narrowly managed to beat the Panda’s 2-1 a week later.
Things then got worse for the Eupener. After a 2-0 loss in the important "bottom of the table clash" versus Charleroi at the 5th game of the season, Dany Ost and his entire staff left the club. Officially on their own will, but this remains speculation as some claim the Italian investors fired the coaching staff. The new coach was eccentric Italian Eziolino Capuano, who –despite having never trained a Seria A team– compared himself to the likes of José Mourinho and other world class trainers. He did manage to secure a first point for Eupen when they drew 0-0 in Zulte-Waregem’s stadium. This time though the club, despite getting its first point, got nothing but negative critics in Belgium as they had achieved the result with a type of defensive football even the average Italian would be astonished by. Capuano however left the club again after only 20 days in charge and the Panda’s already had a third coach in charge despite the fact it is early season: Albert Cartier took over training duties.
The club kept losing week after week, although only Genk and Club Brugge beat Eupen with large scorelines. The fact they had to play two games on neutral soil in Sint-Truiden’s stadium also didn’t help the club much (this short-lived groundsharing was due to the own Kehrwegstadion being rebuilt to meet the criteria for premier division football).
After 10 match days, Eupen had lost 9 games and drew 1. 1 point out of 30. People already had sentenced the club to relegation.
But then came that 16th October 2010. The inauguration of the expanded Kehrwegstadion. Eupen could finally play their games at home (their real home) again. Ironically the opponent was the team whose stadium they used during the reconstruction of the Kehrwegstadion: St-Truiden. A very important clash at the bottom of the table, as St-Truiden were in serious problems as well after 5 losses in a row.
Was it the inauguration of the new stadium that inspired Eupen? Who knows… Fact was that the club has risen from the dead. The first ever victory of a German-speaking club in the Belgian top division was marked and it was done in style: St-Truiden were already 4-0 down at half-time and eventually had to leave the "Oostkantons" with a humiliating 6-0 defeat. Panizzolo, Zukanovic, Vandenbergh (2x), Lepiller and Milicevic put the tally on 6 goals, and it could have even been more. Eupen booked a victory that may revamp their confidence and which undoubtly will be of huge psychological importance. Moreover, people were again praising the team for their pleasant style of attacking football. Is Eupen rising again and on to securing a place in the top division for another season? It is too early to say or to make predictions. I for sure hope they will and if they play the nice football that earned them positive comments for several games, then surely they have a chance.
Viel Glück Eupen!!