55 Football Nations was on a food and drink odyssey at three football matches in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands over one weekend. How did the experiences compare?
I had high expectations at KAA Gent. Their new Ghelamco Arena is home to Horseele, a Michelin starred restaurant serving pheasant, king crab and scallops. The overall ambience for the average punter was not quite as sophisticated. White leather sofas may have been removed by health and safety but the open interior of the stadium was still a comfortable place to congregate. A blue glow softened the light, automatic doors to the stands cleverly regulated the temperature.
Fresh and crunchy frites with mayo were sublime (£3.50). A boulet, sausage meat rolled in breadcrumbs (£2.20), warmed the insides on a cool evening and looked more appetizing than the anaemic sausages. Gent use a cashless system and it was fairly painless to buy (90p) and charge a card. The expression on the barman’s face was more pained when I ordered a tasty Maes beer with 9 pence less than the advertised price left on my card. Belgians prefer rules to mild audacity.
It was Friday night and Gent had beaten Standard Liège by a solitary goal. Fans milled around, watching the press conference on televisions and drinking more Maes. The atmosphere was quiet and refined. Children played in a corridor while two girls toasted the home win with glasses of cava. This was a very modern football experience.
There was also a congenial atmosphere at Borussia Mönchengladbach, just over the German border. The Saturday afternoon sunshine attracted hordes of fans to the open surrounds of the large, if rather bland, Borussia Park several hours before kick off.
Borussia Mönchengladbach have made their uncompromising location as attractive as possible – benches circle a small artificial hill, bar tables are shaded by saplings. A giant screen showed football highlights as a mixed crowd drank pils and weissbier, the £4.40 price included a refundable plastic glass that featured the result and pictures from a recent victory against Schalke. They are almost collectable.
Sausages are still king in Germany. A simple bratwurst in a roll (£2.65) from a car park stall was the pick of three sampled. Currywurst frites (£5.75) hid inferior meat in strangely mild and comforting sauce. German football fans demand choice. Not just sausage and beer. Small pizzas (£6.20) are sold inside and outside the stadium. They looked awful. A young girl in the stands tried to eat one. She took several bites and fell asleep for the rest of the match. The pizza remains were still there after Mönchengladbach’s 1-1 draw with a spirited Mainz side.
I had a different perspective for the Sunday lunchtime clash between ADO Den Haag and Dutch champions Feyenoord. I marched with the ADO hardcore before the match as they celebrated 40 years of their Midden-Nord stand. A few hardy fans downed cans of lager amidst the green and yellow haze and firecrackers.
The compact Cars Jeans Stadium looks like it is constructed of garage doors. The food selection inside the main stand was enhanced by kiosks selling stroopwafels (£2.20), two layers of biscuit filled with caramel that melted deliciously when heated by a steaming coffee from beneath. A fan walked enticingly close with an entire appeltaart.
I visited the players’ lounge. Small glasses were carefully filled with Heineken (£2.20) at a stylish bar with lampshades displaying images of past players. The beery froth was swiped away with unerring accuracy. This was a good place to digest an exciting 2-2 draw. A table football was unused as ADO players, looking unfamiliar in casual wear, were greeted by friends, family and fans.
I left several hours later. Two bars on the ground floor were still packed, music blaring and football fans stonily staring around. It was like All Bar One on a Friday with fewer suits. The grass outside the ADO supporters’ bar was a sea of plastic glasses and animated discussion.
I motored around three football nations in less than two days. Each stadium had their own foodie treats – frites in Belgium, sausages in Germany, waffles in the Netherlands – and all were offering something beyond just a football match.