Beerschot bankrupt – Time for a new beginning in Antwerpen
I wrote this last week after the club had been placed in liquidation. News has just broken that Beerschot have been declared bankrupt.
When I was a student at UCL back in 2009, I visited Antwerpen with my Magyar friend and it made a rather favourable impression on me. Due to time constraints, we never got as far as the suburb of Wilrijk, birthplace of Mousa Dembélé or the neighbouring suburb of Kiel, which houses the main football stadium, out of which Beerschot are based.
A few months later, Germinal Beerschot were riding as high as third in the table but a terrible run of form after the winter break saw them plummet down the table to finish thirteenth. Since then, they have not only occupied the lower reaches of the Jupiler Pro League, culminating in this season’s relegation but they have also flirted with financial disaster. The club was already in a critical state as far back as 2010, when Patrick Vanoppen acquired a majority stakeholding before becoming chairman soon after.
Far from being the club’s knight in shining armour, Vanoppen took charge of a loss-making club, possessing considerable debts and promptly proceeded to make the club’s financial situation a lot worse. Much was made of a supposed new start under ex-Club Brugge coach Adrie Koster but the more sensible observers wondered how Beerschot could justify bringing in an entirely new team under someone whose jovial personality and reputation for “attractive” football masked the fact that he was a rather average coach better suited to under-age teams.
At the start of the season, many tipped Beerschot to be a surprise contender for PO1. Relegation was not talked of, especially given the inexperience of Waasland-Beveren at this level, Lierse’s chaos and Charleroi, who were strong contenders for the title of Europe’s worst run club, never mind Belgium’s. Cercle Brugge could not buy a win but Koster wasn’t faring well either and he was given the boot in November. His assistant Wim De Corte failed to turn things around and Jacky Mathijssen returned for a second spell. According to Funso Ojo, one of Beerschot’s best (young) players, this was the final nail in the coffin:
“For all the nice platitudes we heard pre-season, they have delivered nothing. The last few months were hugely difficult. I had three problems: we were not paid, the team weren’t going well and the coach was working against me. My season was essentially already over when Mathijssen came,” he told the Gazet van Antwerpen.
As the nights became brighter, the future appeared ever bleaker for Beerschot. In February, they asked for, and received, a period of grace during which they would not have to pay off their creditors and it was revealed their equity amounted to -€2.6m. Play-Off 3 beckoned and due to a quirk of the fixture list, up to six games in succession against Cercle. Overkill doesn’t even begin to describe such a prospect. Their three point headstart gave them the upper hand in PO3 and there was the prospect of Beerschot winning their on field battle to stay up despite being unable to pay off their debts, which totalled an astonishing £14.5m/ €17m. Midway through PO3 came the inevitable announcement that Beerschot had been denied a licence for next season, sending them to the third division. I commented at the time that the bear (to run with the analogy) was mortally wounded and that it would not be beneficial to anyone to plunge the club and Belgian football into a messy and long, drawn out saga through the courts.
The momentum began to irreversibly shift and not in Beerschot’s favour. A more organised Cercle wrestled control of PO3 and won with a game to spare, qualifying for the D2 play-offs. They lost their appeal to the Licensing Committee but while the case then passed to the Belgian Court of Arbitration for Sport, Vanoppen threw in the towel as the club decided not to present its case before the court. The club knew they didn’t have a leg to stand on as they were unable to pay the licence fee they owed to the Belgian FA or issue the required bank guarantees. The harsh reality was finally beginning to dawn. When the club went into liquidation yesterday, it was the final confirmation of what has been a slow and painful decline.
While the players have to shoulder some of the blame for poor on-field performances (though someone like Alpaslan Öztürk has had a great season and attracted the attention of West Ham among others), that must not detract from the staggering incompetence and ineptitude Vanoppen is guilty of. He turned down several proposals of external investment, not wanting to cede control of a club he was running into the ground. Around 25 supporters protested outside Vanoppen’s house. A consortium of 20 supporters clubs began working night and day to put together a viable package for the club to move forward. “Only the continued existence of our club counts,” their spokesman said. Vanoppen and the consortium known as “Beerschot Collectief” tried almost every club in the surrounding region but no-one was prepared to leap into the ocean and save the sinking ship. For a club who had played a part in the development of Toby Alderweireld, Jelle van Damme, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, Tom De Mul and Dembélé, it was a crying shame.
The absolute best case scenario for the club or its successor is that it will play in the third division next season but that supposes that someone will come in and pay the money owed to the football association. The liquidator has until the end of March 2014 to find a buyer and they will also decide the fate of the players and staff. Beerschot now risk being relegated to the lowest tier of Belgian football. What will happen to the Olympisch Stadion? The city of Antwerp, who own the facility, will no doubt find new tenants. After all, Antwerpen is the current European Capital of Sport but elite football is ailing.
To my mind, the answer lies in a completely new beginning. We have seen how the extinction of Excelsior Mouscron and Beveren have not led to the death of football in their respective communities. That means one major team in the city, with names such as Antwerp FC or Antwerp United being mooted but not a merger between Beerschot and Royal Antwerp (which some fans but not all would welcome), rather a new club untainted by the failures of the past and thus better positioned to put Antwerp back on the footballing map. For the first time in over a century, Antwerpen is without top flight football. Belgium’s second city deserves much better.