Polishing up nicely: Royal Antwerp v Rangers

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Off-air, pre-show, behind the scenes of the latest Gersnet podcast, I didn’t ask our special guest – Belgian football journalist Michiel De Wolf – if Royal Antwerp are prioritising what is already their third-best European run over the chance of their best domestic league finish in 46 years.

I didn’t ask him if their 1998 to 2013 player loan agreement with Manchester United, which saw the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and even one Phil Bardsley gain first team experience at the start of their careers, was part of the reason Antwerp had spent so most of the last two decades in the Belgian second tier.

I didn’t even ask him if their pitch was in the kind of nick that would let our ball-on-the-deck pass-masters turn in the kind of dominantly smooth performances we specialised in before winter hit Scotland’s pitches.

No. What I really wanted to know was if Tribune 2 was still there. Michiel said it was. And so, tonight, with Rob McLean and Stephen Craigan every bit as horrendous on the mic as Crocker and Walker, there will be one lovely sight for sore ears: we’ll see Rangers playing in front of a massive covered enclosure of whitewashed wooden benches made only half as famous as it should be by the thousands of waterproof garment-wearing British stadium lovers who’ve got themselves over to Belgium’s second city for so many pre-Covid years to photograph those benches from every angle before sitting on them for a game and Instagramming themselves holding up some genuinely Belgian draught beer in a plastic half-litre cup stamped with the crest which incorporates the number 1 underneath even more proudly than we wear the five stars above ours.

Royal Antwerp aren’t one of Belgium’s top three clubs, all of whom Rangers have now eliminated from Europe at one time or December. They aren’t, strictly speaking, even the most successful team in Antwerp (that’s hated local rivals Beerschot). But Royal Antwerp are, like their stadium, an institution enjoying a steady but relentless renaissance.

The big number One will be everywhere in tonight’s BT Sports graphics. In Belgium, the land of the merciless merger, the venal renaming and the casual bankruptcy, proving a club’s lineage is even more important than it is to Celtic fans. A unique matriculation number has been issued to each club by the Belgian FA from the moment that club was formed and applied to be registered. Royal Antwerp are known as “The Great Old” because they’re even older than the Belgian FA. Formed in 1880, they’re the oldest club in Belgium and their matricule number almost makes up for the fact the last of their four Belgian league titles was won in the 1950s.

They’re known literally as The Big Old, despite hailing from the Flemish-speaking world, because they were formed, like the sport of football itself in Belgium, by Englishmen. Antwerp disrespected their roots earlier this season by defeating Spurs in front of an empty, gleaming Tribune 2.

This came in the second game of a group stage for which they qualified directly by reaching the Belgian Cup final against last season’s domestic league champions, Club Brugge. Like Rangers, Antwerp won four group matches but, unlike our table-topping, 14-point selves, they lost the other two games; at home to LASK of Austria and, costing them top place, the Match Day 6 return with Tottenham.

Also unlike ourselves, they’ve lost the manager who guided them through that group. Croat Ivan Leko headed for the riches of the Chinese Super League at the start of January. His replacement, Belgian legend, Franky Vercauteren, won more European Cup-Winners’ Cups and UEFA Cups as an Anderlecht player than Rangers have as a club. As manager he’s won almost as many Belgian Pro League titles – one with Genk, two with Anderlecht - as Franky Vercauteren did as a player (four).

Tribune 2 isn’t so much a more continental version of the old Ibrox Centenary Stand – because the Bosuilstadion was famously Glaswegian in its original, elliptical, three-huge-terraces-and-a main-stand design - as a more striking version. Tribune 2, in this form, won’t ever again hold spectators. It’s part of a building site now. Temporary floodlights are situated between it and the pitch. The wooden-benched, whitewashed Tribune 2 is the last original part of a ground built in 1923, its capacity expanded over the years to 60,000 even though its biggest ever attendance remains 55,000 (witnessing two Gerd Mueller goals help West Germany to victory over the host nation in the Euro 72 semi-final).

Like Ibrox, Bosuil has hosted precisely one European club final and that was, like Ibrox, one game in a European Cup-Winners’ Cup final that required two (us the 1961 first leg, them the 1964 replay). Like Ibrox, it has witnessed Real Madrid winning by a single goal in the early rounds of the European Cup to go with a 6-0 thrashing in the Bernabéu. A far worse coincidence, Bosuil has also hosted Kilmarnock – for Antwerp this unfortunately came during the Ayrshire side’s greatest European run, to the 1966-67 Fairs Cup semis. RAFC were dispatched 8-2 on aggregate.

The stadium we grace tonight, the host of so many international clashes between Belgium’s “Red Devils” and the old enemy, the Netherlands, had run into serious disrepair by the 1980s. Brussels was now the preferred host city for the national side. But by the end of that decade Royal Antwerp had gone beyond the first two rounds of Europe for the first time in their history and they did it thanks to a 4-0 Bosuil bashing of another orange-ish visitor. Jim McLean’s Dundee United were hammered 6-3 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup.

Despite losing out in the quarter-finals to Cologne that time, in 1992-93 Royal Antwerp’s greatest European season saw them reach the European Cup-Winners’ Cup final. They were unlucky to meet Nevio Scala’s brilliant Parma but that 3-1 loss at old Wembley was the last European final contested by a Belgian side. Eight clubs have won more Belgian titles than Antwerp but only four others have contested a continental showpiece.

The next two seasons brought just three European ties in total. Relegation followed in 1997-98 and, other than a brief hiatus from 2001 to 2004, it was second tier football until Wim De Decker won promotion in 2016-17… and was that summer promptly demoted to assistant manager. His new boss, Romanian László Bölöni (1986 European Cup-winning midfielder with Steaua Bucharest) was part of the on-field rebuild begun the same year as the stadium rebuild. As three sides of the ground were gradually reconstructed, Antwerp finished eighth in 2018-19 then fourth in the next two seasons. As well as a brief but historic return to Europe last term, before leaving in May 2020, Bölöni guided Antwerp to the Belgian Cup final. Delayed because of Covid, it was won in August with a goal from the man we have to watch closest tonight, Lior Refaelov.

Antwerp was the third club for which Israeli international Refaelov had scored in the Belgian cup final. The 34-year-old, who banged in five for Club Brugge on their way to the 2014-15 quarter-finals of the Europa League, is listed as a midfielder. However, with three goals in this season’s group stage – including that winner versus Spurs – his wand of a right foot is to be feared. Fellow “midfielder”, No.16, Pieter Gerkins, scored with his head in the away wins in Linz and Ludogorets (by the way, tonight’s ref is Bulgarian so here’s hoping he’s from Razgrad).

Brugge are almost as clear of Antwerp in the Jupiler Pro League First Division A as we are of “Furritsa Grand Old” in Scotland’s sponsor-free top flight. But, having finished no higher than third since 1975, and missing their captain and a few others tonight, I hope Antwerp are more worried about securing second at home than progressing much further abroad. Domestic hotshot Didier Lamkel Zé, suspended for this leg, was so desperate to leave in January he turned up to training in an Anderlecht top. While that’s a bit like Alfie waltzing into Auchenhowie in the hoops, Lamkel Zé may have been persuaded to stay by the rebuild happening around him.

Tribune 1, the main stand, has been completely rebuilt. If our players are filmed in the tunnel tonight, behind them you’ll see a bar called Diamonds. This isn’t an arch reference to late 80s/early 90s wine bar nomenclature, and has nothing to do with Broomfield, the Shyberry Excelsior or Neil Lennon’s dazzling formation which absolutely, no question, morally deserved to win at Ibrox last month. It’s a reference to the nearby Square Mile, the oldest diamond district in any city in the world.

This is a port city, a trading city, an ancient patron of the arts with a population only slightly smaller than Glasgow. Football in Belgium was born in the Antwerp province of Flanders. Royal Antwerp present a logical next stop for Rangers in a season which has seen us visit the most famous representative of French-speaking Wallonia, Standard Liege and, in the qualifying rounds, travel to Tilburg. There we hammered Willem II, so named because of the Dutch king who, as a prince of Orange, garrisoned himself in Tilburg to quell the nearby 1830 uprising which, because he wasn’t successful, became the creation of Belgium itself.

We have Roofe and Morelos back. But surely the biggest confidence boost in this Belgian Odyssey of a season, is Club Brugge are in the Europa League now. Surely that means one more round at least. Royal Antwerp can come back to us when they’ve finished polishing their rough jewel of a ground.

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