Why even after the promotion you need to go to Union Saint-Gilloise

For the second time in three years, Volkskrant reporter (and SANTOS editor-in-chief) Bart Vlietstra went to a Union Saint-Gilloise match, currently playing at the highest level in Belgium. 'It's my favourite stadium in Benelux.'

Why even after the promotion you need to go to Union Saint-Gilloise

Union Saint-Gilloise is no longer the secret gem in the southwest of Brussels, whose fairytale stadium is hidden in a hole in Dudenpark. It has been widely discovered since it obtained its promotion last summer and immediately became a title challenger. Bart Vlietstra came here three years ago with his amateur football team, and was enchanted by the strange mix of unique, old ornaments between the greenery, the dynamics between the yellow-blue team and dotted coloured fans in the lively standing stands. A British investor, a promotion and suddenly the club is hyped. Vlietstra went there again last weekend for a report by Union Saint-Gilloise-Anderlecht for the Volkskrant.

Bart, is the magic broken?

“When you arrive, you are shocked by how many camera crews are in front of the characteristic art deco facade of the Joseph Marien stadium. They practically surround the crowd at Union's Taverne, the most eye-catching cafe. Occasionally Union fans are interviewed. Some you see delay getting a beer to avoid coming into the picture.”

Oops, sorry.

“Well, the atmosphere in the Brussels Steenweg, where the Marien stadium is located, is otherwise unchanged. There are still bratwursts in small pistolets swaying precariously back and forth. It smells like weed in some corners. And everywhere, mostly bearded Union fans with blue-yellow scarves, caps and/or training jackets are chatting, a glass of beer in hand. They are the same types as three years ago, a colourful mix of students, artists and seniors who have said they have been coming to Royale Union Saint-Gilloise for a hundred years. They were the biggest club in Brussels in the first decade of the 1900s (eleven league titles). The street was busy, but not overcrowded. It could also be because due to corona measures, only 6,500 were allowed instead of 9000. There was no place for Anderlecht fans.”

Has something been done to the stadium now that Union is suddenly the best club in Belgium?

“Thankfully not. It still looks like a hidden oasis in Dudenpark, there are no large outbuildings or luxurious seats where ties and snobs drink prosecco. The 100-metre-long facade of the seating grandstand on the street side, built in 1926 with seven panels depicting football players and athletes, still stands proudly. It could use a scrubbing, it looks a bit weathered, but that also gives it a certain charm. I see enough polished stadiums in the Netherlands. Last time I came, I stood in the standing grandstand with a view of the main grandstand and the tall houses behind it, now I sat in the main grandstand and, as a journalist-in-office, I also had access to the indoor corridors and stairs in the catacombs, and the rooms above with stained glass windows. Crazy."

What about the standing grandstand on the long (other) side?

“I had a perfect view of that this time. It was busier than three years ago, there was also more singing and clapping. Makes sense, given the results. But the elaborate ceremony with the players where mutual thanks are exchanged has remained intact.

Behind the goals are still the yellow and blue seats. You can still watch the match from a high path in the Dudenpark itself. I also find the white, detached mansion diagonally above the standing grandstand where people are watching on the stairs, which otherwise looks uninhabited.”

Is anything else special?

"The music. No rock-hard house or hip-hop, but mostly Abba, Opus (Life is Life), club songs and very often Vamos a la playa. The Italian singer of that song turned out to be a big fan of the club after he happened to drop by after a concert in Brussels a few years ago. So not a glory hunter, rather an inveterate groundhopper. You see them a lot here, from different corners of the world. Also notable: there is no hatred towards big brother Anderlecht, no fireworks. And also no Anderlecht fans who lingered threateningly around the stadium, although the Anderlecht district is nearby.”

What if that crazy Union makes it to European football?

This is now taken seriously into account given the large lead over Belgium's top clubs. Then it may be possible to move to Leuven. There are plans to move permanently elsewhere in the city, but a chilly industrial area is also an option. A British investor has stepped into the club, which also explains the sporting advance. But the facade is a protected heritage and the rest of the small stadium will be preserved, if necessary, as a training location or for an amateur club.'

Are you happy with that?

'Yes, overjoyed. Although I secretly hope that Union will continue to play there, because of the history, that great emblem on the side of the main stand and because of the yellow-blue that contrasts so well with the green and grey. It is really my favourite stadium in Benelux, especially in the evening light, when the trees behind the standing grandstand are lit up by the green floodlights and the decorative fireworks come into their own. But it's also just a picture under a clear blue sky.'

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Is there anything else fun nearby?

Anderlecht's Constant Vandenstock stadium is one motorway exit away. Once a hyper modern complex with the very first skyboxes in Europe, but is now very outdated. You are close to the pitch everywhere, and around it, you will find many more of those real stadium bars than at Union. RWDM is also close by and remains an interesting club where Jan Boskamp once caused a furore. Furthermore, former Anderlecht icon Jan Mulder favourited the Sablon district a few years ago due to the art galleries and shops with antiques and especially because of the white and black sausage with mashed potatoes and apple sauce at the restaurant Vieux Saint Martin.