The end of the season is approaching in Belgian football, and while the play-offs for the domestic title, European spots and the Cup winner yet have to be decided, some decisions have been realised already. Royal Charleroi SC is relegating to the second level after more than 20 years in the top division. The team has played European football several times, has been a plague to the big teams in the past, and plays in a stadium of over 20000 spots. Bad management and chaos in the board room have lead the club to finishing bottom spot in the regular league and also losing the "play-downs" versus Eupen, which means the club is relegating. Eupen itself has now the chance to save its spot in the premier division through a play-off with the numbers 2 to 4 from that second level: Lommel United, RAEC Mons, and Waasland-Beveren. The other certainty we know already is the first new face in the premier division: OHL, or without abbreviation, Oud-Heverlee Leuven. The club from Belgium’s number 1 university city has been aiming at the premier level for years and now finally assured its spot in that premier division by winning the second division this year. This means direct promotion for the Leuven-based club, and unlike some very small clubs who realised promotion the past years (Dender, Tubize, etc come into mind) Leuven may be one to stay. The city is quite big, there are few other big clubs in the area, if the club manages to attract the massive student population they have a potentially huge supporters base, the city council supports the club when needed, the stadium is already upgraded to premier division standards and needs no more investments, and there are quite a few big companies ready to sponsor the team. This club could be one that can survive on the long term in the highest division of Belgium.
Let’s have a look at the history of the club. Like many clubs in Belgium, the club results from a merger. In this case a merger of 3 local clubs, of which one already resulted from mergers itself. However, unlike many mergers that are frowned upon and end up becoming a replica of the biggest club involved and rejected by the followers of the other involved clubs, the OHL story is a success story. A merger which was accepted by all involved, immediately drew the support of the fans previously supporting one of the former independent clubs, a merger which was welcomed by everyone and where the newly created club immediately got accepted by those supporting the clubs that lead to the creation of OH Leuven. In other words, this is one of those rare exceptions where the merger benefitted everyone involved and was accepted by everyone involved. When the club was formed in 2002, the target was to reach the premier division by 2010. With just one year delay, the target has been reached.
The club resulted from the merger of three clubs in 2002, a merger encouraged by the city council of Leuven and the community council of neighbouring municipality Oud-Heverlee. Leuven has always had a strong tradition in sports, with well-performing basketball teams, the biggest athletics club in Belgium, well-performing hockey teams, … Only in football things did not work out that well. It was 61 (!) years ago since there was last seen top division football in the historical university city. Hence a merger was realised in 2002 between three clubs: Stade Leuven, Daring Leuven and Zwarte Duivels Oud-Heverlee (this translates as "Black Devils Oud-Heverlee"). The name of the newly created club, which would continue to use Oud-Heverlee’s matricule number 6142, would simply be Oud-Heverlee Leuven, a combination of both municipalities’ names. We take a dive into the history of the three former clubs.
1) The historically most succesful of the three clubs was Koninklijke Stade Leuven.
The club was founded in 1903 and thus would be 99 years of age when it merged to form OHL. The club was assigned the matricule number 18 and played in green and white outfits. The initial name was Stade Louvaniste, as in those days French was the elitist language and thus most organisations and clubs, even in Flanders, used a French name. Only in 1967 the name Koninklijke Stade Leuven was adopted, thus using the Dutch version of the city’s name.
The club was a yo-yo team between second and third level for most of its pre-World War II existance. A brief moment of glory came when in 1950 the club played in the premier division. However, the success story was over after just one season and Stade Leuven relegated back to the second level and would never return to the highest level as an independent club. It was also the last year premier division football would be seen in Leuven (until next season!) as neither of the other clubs in the city would reach the highest level. Between 1971 and 1973 the club reached its lowest depth as it sunk back into the provincial amateur divisions. The remaining 29 years of its existance it would play mostly in levels 3 and 4, and a few seasons in the second highest level. Promotion to the premier division however was never accomplished again.
The club eventually merged in 2002 to form Oud-Heverlee Leuven but while its matricule number 18 disappeared, Stade Leuven’s mark is still very visable as its stadium is now used as the main stadium of the newly created club. Den Dreef, which was before the merger named Leuven Sportcentrum, already was a very nice ground with a large main stand prior to the merger. Since the merger it has been upgraded to a very nice 8000 capacity stadium of which over 5000 are seats. Prior to the merger and in the first years after the merger, there was terracing behind both goals, whereas now these are seated stands.
2) Daring Leuven (or with its full name Koninklijke Daring Club Leuven) was the least succesful of the three clubs in the merger, but it is a club with a long history. It is the result of mergers itself.
Daring was founded in 1922 with the name Sporting Club Louvain (again using the French name of the city) and was assigned matricule number 223 by the Belgian FA. It was the third club from the city, after Stade and also Victoria FC Louvain.
Victoria was founded in 1920 and was, when in 1926 the Belgian FA introduced the matricule nr system, assigned matricule number 206.
Finally, in 1923, yet another club from Leuven was created, the first one using a Dutch name: Hooger Op FC Leuven (which can be translated as "Going Up FC Leuven") which received the matricule nr 347.
Both Victoria, Hooger Op and Sporting Club were going up and down between the third level (at that time the highest nationwide division in Belgium) and the provincial amateur leagues. In some of the seasons there were 2 or even 3 Leuven-based clubs in the third level, resulting in several derbies. Neither of the 3 clubs was succesful however. This resulted in mergers shortly after the Second World War finished.
Victoria and SC Louvain were the first one to merge. The exact year of merger is uncertain to me, but it was very shortly after the end of the war. It was at this point Daring Club Leuven was created, as this became the name of the newly formed club. They continued with matricule 223 of Sporting Club.
Hooger Op was the second one to merge. They merged with athletics club Olympic, who continued as Hooger Op Leuven Athletiekclub. In 1949 a third merger occured as Hooger Op merged with Daring and would continue to play as Daring Club Leuven. The matricule 223 again remained, and thus Daring Club Leuven was the one remaining pioneering Leuven club other than Stade Leuven.
Sidenote: the athletics branch of Hooger Op also joined the merger and continued its activities as Daring Club Leuven Atletiek. This club actually still exists under this name and this is the one remaining portion of Daring which still exists as an independent club. The club hails, just like Daring’s football team, from the Kessel-Lo district of Leuven. The athletics club was originally formed as Athletiekclub Park Leopold, named after the park where they used to operate. In 1943 they joined the Belgian Athletics union and received matricule 69 (Belgians love matricule numbers, don’t they?) and soon changed their name to Olympic and, thanks to the merger with the football club, Hooger Op and later on Daring. The name Daring Leuven thus lives on today as an athletics club, still using the stadium where Daring’s football team operated too.
Sidenote II: it is unsure weither the mergers between SC, Victoria and Hooger Op were de jure mergers or only de facto mergers (when saying "de facto" I mean that it is common that clubs merge in practise but that in legal terms/administrative terms one club changes name and the other clubs just cease to exist. Examples of this are FC Brussels, Lommel United, SW Harelbeke-Ingelmunster, the former Tilleur-Liège, …).
Back to football. The merger did not lead to bad results as the newly formed Daring football team reached the second level for the first time in 1951. The club thus would play the derby against Stade, who just relegated after their only year in the highest division. This time Daring was unlucky to only last 1 season in the league and dropped back to third division. In 1953, Stade dropped to third division too, again derby time in Leuven but the football in the students’ city was in very bad state as you can see. By the end of the sixties (a restless time in the city as the linguistic battle reached its top with the students wanting the university to be Dutch-language only ; which would result in the French part separating and relocating to the newly built planned city Louvain-la-Neuve in Wallonia) both Stade and Daring had dropped to the fourth level, then the lowest nationwide level in the country. In 1967, Daring dropped to the provincial leagues. The red-and-whites remained a yo-yo team but in 1979 the club left the nationwide football forever, as they dropped again to the provincial leagues and would never return.
The stadium of Daring was based in Kessel-Lo. It was called Boudewijnstadion. I have been there myself personally when there were still youth and reserve teams of OHL active there. I am unsure if this is still the case. Plans to revamp the stadium as athletics stadium were ongoing and would probably be realised, if not already realised. The stadium thus survives, but I am unsure if there is still football played there. Next to Daring’s ground, Kessel-Lo 2000 has its ground, however this is an amateur team in the provincial leagues and the ground is nothing more than a grass pitch with a canteen and very minimal facilities. According to the FA’s site they play at Boudewijnstadion, Stadionlaan 8 (next to the Diestsesteenweg), Kessel-Lo. It is probably the side pitch, as the big Boudewijnstadion is home of the athletics club and probably used for athletics only (this was the former Daring Leuven football ground). The Boudewijnstadion, since being mainly/only athletics, has been renamed after the legendary athlete Gaston Roelants.
A nice article on Daring’s history can be found here: www.nieuwsblad.be/article/detail.aspx?articleid=70399GIE
And this article seems to confirm that indeed football is no longer played there and the stadium is now athletics-only: www.gva.be/Archief/guid/leuven-investeert-1-1-miljoen-euro-in-nieuw-atletiekstadion.aspx?artikel=94143d9f-e7db-4ba1-9bf3-c1f74c91fe00
Groundhoppers can still visit the stadium even when it’s no longer used for football, and meanwhile hop in to see the ground of next-door Kessel-Lo 2000 (even though this ground is really nothing special).
3) The youngest, least historical but quite succesful one involved was Zwarte Duivels Oud-Heverlee. Oud-Heverlee is a separate municipality bordering Leuven, unlike Heverlee which is part of the municipality of Leuven. The Zwarte Duivels only formed in 1957 and is a youngster compared to the clubs it merged with. 6142 became the matricule number assigned to the club, and this number is still used by OHL today. The club steadily climbed the hierarchy of Belgian football and became a top team in the third division. However, lack of money meant that the club could not make the leap to the second division, they were realistic enough that this would not be possible and thus did not apply for a license to be promoted.
In 2002 the Leuven city council tried to revive the football in Leuven and brought old rivals Stade and Daring together for talking about a merger. But it was clear even a combination of those two would be insufficient. Hence they also approached the neighbouring village’s Zwarte Duivels. On 27th March 2003 the merger between all three clubs was finalised.
This is the story how Oud-Heverlee Leuven came into existance. The name of the new club is simply the combination of both municipalities’ names. The club continues to play with Oud-Heverlee’s matricule 6142, plays in totally white outfits (with reserve outfits in a very nice orangy red with yellow shades), and used Den Dreef as home stadium. Den Dreef, with 8000 capacity of which over 5000 seated, is a very nice stadium which needs little or no adaption for the highest division. It is one of the better stadiums of the second division and maybe even nicer than some stadiums of present-day top division teams. It is on the border of Leuven proper and Heverlee (a subdivision of Leuven) and located conveniently next to the circular road around the city and near the exit of the highway.
The Gemeentelijk Stadion (Municipal Stadium) in Oud-Heverlee is used by Sporting OHL (see further) and also by the ladies’ team of the club. Bruineveld in Kessel-Lo is the youth complex, this should not be confused with Daring Leuven’s old ground though (which is, as said, athletics-only now).
Since the merger the club gradually evolved into a stable, financially healthy and well-supported club. Already in their first year of existance, they reached the third division play-offs final for a spot in the second level. I witnessed that final, played in the stadium of RC Mechelen, versus Eendracht Aalst 2002. Promotion in their first season of existance was in reach but in front of a packed stadium, Aalst kept the nerves under control better in the penalty shoot-outs. The game had finished 1-1 but Aalst won after penalties. The number of present Leuven fans that day indicated however that this club had potential and that the merger was well received. In 2005, promotion to the second level was realised by beating Visé in the play-off final in third division (thanks to two goals by the late François Sterchele). One year after the target of 2010, the club promoted to the highest division. Last Sunday, Leuven drew 2-2 away to Antwerp, which was enough to assure promotion as the only remaining rival Lommel United also only drew 1-1 at home versus KV Oostende. With one game left (ironically OHL versus Lommel United !) and a 5 points gap, OHL could celebrate. 61 years after Stade Leuven played its only season in the top flight, premier level football is back in Leuven.
The club has been quite innovative since the merger. An example is Sporting OHL. OHL was the first club in Belgium whose reserve team played in the regular leagues (starting at the bottom level, 4th provincial level, but already having reached 2nd provincial level by now). Now it is widely accepted to do so and many clubs have a second team in the regular league rather than in a reserve league. Even low-level clubs do so, an example is Standaard Muide Gent whose first team play in 3rd provincial level (= 7th level overall) and their second team one division lower. However, when OHL started to let their reserves play in the regular leagues, this was not allowed yet, so they had to form a legally separate club with a different name and different matricule number. Oud-Heverlee Leuven 2 became the name of this new club, which is now named Sporting Oud-Heverlee Leuven. It has matricule number 9459 and plays in the stadium in Oud-Heverlee where Zwarte Duivels OH played their games prior to the merger. OHL thus pioneered the entry of reserve teams (or second teams, as you wish) in the regular leagues in Belgium, by now a common fact but a few years ago still not done.
The ladies’ team has a team in the highest division of women’s football in Belgium and a team in the 2nd level of the women’s football league. The games in the highest level take place in Oud-Heverlee (former stadium of Zwarte Duivels) and the second level games at the youth complex Bruineveld in Kessel-Lo.
Leuven is a very nice city to visit. It has one of the most beautiful medieval market squares of Belgium (and maybe even of Europe), a very vibrant nightlife and pub scene (which I guess is no surprise for a students’ city), the university is one of the oldest in Europe and draws students from both Belgium and far away countries, and has a vibrant cultural scene. A visit to Leuven is very much recommended for those loving architecture, pubs or partying… and now also for those who love football.
Wishing OHL a succesful a long spell in the highest division!
The following pictures of stadium Den Dreef are from the official website of OHL and their property:
Players celebrating the promotion to the highest league (photo is property/copyright of Belga and was published on hln.be):