The presidents of the Belgian top clubs Club Brugge and Royal Antwerpen are at war at all levels. It’s about stadiums, transfers, the Ajax legacy – and of course the league title.
Ha! Jurgen Ekkelenkamp snatched away at the very last moment! Since he has wiped him once again really one! For the neutral observer it was the signing of a rather unknown midfielder from Hertha BSC, for Paul Gheysens (68) it was a prestige success in a duel with Bart Verhaeghe (58).
Actually, Ekkelenkamp had already made his way to the Club Brugge club grounds at the beginning of August. According to reports, the medical check-up had already been organized and the contract was ready to be signed. But in the course of the day his route suddenly changed: Instead of going to Bruges, Ekkelenkamp traveled to Antwerp, around 90 kilometers to the east.
How did that come about? Royal Antwerp President Gheysens is said to have outbid Bruges’ offer, while coach Mark van Bommel and sporting director Marc Overmars have at the same time convinced their Dutch compatriot of a change of heart. The coup worked, Ekkelenkamp ultimately switched from Hertha to Antwerp for five million euros.
This time Gheysens had defeated his rival Verhaeghe, but after the duel is before the duel for the two. The next exchange of blows will definitely come. Alternately cheering and receiving, that’s how the rival real estate moguls and club presidents have been going for years.
Stadium duel, part 1: Point Verhaeghe
Gheysens and Verhaeghe made their fortunes in real estate and construction before turning to football. Verhaeghe started things off: He joined Club Brugge in 2011, soon surpassed the previous league dominator RSC Anderlecht and made his toy the most successful club in Belgium. Five championship titles, most recently three in a row, six Champions League appearances and Bruges are back again this season.
At the same time, Verhaeghe was involved with the Belgian football association KBVB, and in 2016 he was elected vice-president. The dominant topic at the time: the construction of a new national stadium in Brussels. The former Heysel Stadium now has the royal name Stade Roi-Baudouin, but is not in a particularly royal condition.
The plans for the new building were actually already complete: the new arena was to be called the Eurostadion, hold around 63,000 spectators and serve as the venue for the 2020 pan-European championship. Gheysen’s Ghelamco Group was awarded the contract for construction in 2015. Previous experience was available through the construction of the Ghelamco Arena by KAA Gent.
Due to political quarrels and open questions regarding financing and environmental compatibility, the start of construction of the Eurostadion was delayed further and further. These developments should have come in handy for the new association Vice Verhaeghe. Bruges’ president eventually emerged as a staunch opponent of the project. Among other things, he was bothered that not only the Belgian national team, but also Anderlecht should play in the new stadium, which would give the league rivals a competitive advantage.
Because there was no end to the delays, UEFA Brussels withdrew the European Championship games. In 2018, the project was completely canceled, causing Ghelamco boss Gheysens to lose his prestigious million dollar contract. Instead of the new building, a renovation of the Stade Roi-Baudouin is now planned, which is to be implemented by another company.
Stadium Duel, Part 2: Point Gheysens
Of course, Paul Gheysens, who is said to have identified Verhaeghe as the main person responsible for the failure of the project, wouldn’t let that sit on his own – so he prevented his stadium plans a few months later. Bruges’ Jan Breydel Stadium is as outdated as Brussels’ Stade Roi-Baudouin. Verhaeghe has been looking for a suitable building site for a new arena practically since its takeover. When he finally found one north of the city, Gheysens of all people intervened.
He had recently acquired a 11-acre farm in the immediate vicinity of the proposed stadium to set up storage depots for his company. However, parts of this area would have been needed for parking spaces next to Bruges’ new stadium, which Gheysens refused. His revenge succeeded, and Verhaeghe’s project also failed. Compensation in terms of thwarted stadium plans.
In the meantime, Bruges has found another site where a 40,000-seat arena will soon be built. “The approval for the new stadium is a milestone for Club Brugge,” said Verhaeghe about a year ago. In the future, the hottest games will probably be against Royal Antwerp, which, supported by Gheysens, has risen to become Bruges’ most dangerous challenger.