As football venues go the Stadion Edelhert De Lille in the Belgian town Maldegem is extraordinary. It’s actually more than extraordinary, it’s unique. There is nothing else like it. The resident club FC Sobemai contest around 30 games a season in a nameless ad-hoc East and West Flanders competition that is strictly amateur and is not even affiliated to the Royal Belgian Football Federation. This is football in its rawest form and affectionately known as ‘caféploeg voetball’. What makes this venue so beguiling, so utterly unique, is that the pitch is surrounded by old train carriages, engines and other engineering equipment. Metallic rusting giants originally collected by Edelhart De Lille for a proposed theme park that never got off the ground. In 1973 the club’s old pitch at Akkersterrein was no longer available De Lille suggested his train graveyard would make a more than suitable alternative venue.
FC Sobemai were formed in May 1966 and were the works team of a crane building firm called NV Sobemai in Bogaardenstraat. The new club contested their first game against KAJ Oostwinkel and continued playing friendlies against other factory and works teams in the area. In the late 1977 the team played in an organised league for the first time called the Meetjeslands Voetbal League, but soon returned to their preferred ad-hoc style of matches. Despite Edelhert De Lille inventing a highly successful articulated mechanism for lifting weights the firm would eventually go bankrupt but such was his love of football the kindly owner allowed the club to continue on the site indefinitely for a peppercorn rent. Even after De Lille’s death in 2008 the family have no intention for changing the arrangements for the club.
In April 2003 the club suffered a blow when their old wooden canteen and dressing rooms were destroyed in a fire started by a short circuit in an electrical cupboard. Sadly the club also saw all their historic memorabilia lost in the blaze. The club had to play on a local park pitch before returning to their home ground five months later.
The club has overcome many setbacks and have soldiered on in their quirky ad-hoc competition where their rivals include teams like The Beggars, Walrus and Borussia Vake. Today they take on Westeinde and Boogaarde Kermis which translates rather wonderfully as West End and Boogarde Fairground. Sobemai’s amiable Club President and former player Eric Sierens welcomes us to the club and soon all is set for kick off. The game is just thirty minutes each way and the pitch is noticeably narrow. There is no referee and officiating is conducted by a mutually agreed club official. He does an excellent job although with only one offside blown for in the whole game the rule seems to have been sidelined for this game. The standard of the match is surprisingly good and contested in a very good spirit.
At halftime the players of Kermis stay on the sidelines drinking Jupiler beer and smoking while Sobemai return to the changing rooms. Upon their return both sides line up for a joint team photo which seemed to epitomise the friendly nature of the encounter. From the Kermis team it is Gert-Jan Savat that catches the eye with two good finishes early in the second half. For the home side Jordy Decadt looked a useful player and goalkeeper Pascal Pollet pulled off some excellent saves which made Kermis’ injury time goal a shame as it went through the custodian’s legs on a wet pitch. Just prior to the visitor’s third goal their defender Dieter Dabaut managed to put the ball into his own net to momentarily reduce Sobemai’s arrears.
This is a wonderful place, so unconventional and so utterly bizarre, who wouldn’t want to watch a game here?
Update (February 2015)
Subsequently to writing this piece, news arrived from Belgium that the bizarre collection of locomotives and wagons at the ground of FC Sobemai were on the move. The daughter of Edelhart De Lille and her brothers had decided after forty years of standing around the football field it was time to re-house the ancient relics. Already gone from the site are two carriages and a 37 tonne locomotive. They have been transported to the Verbeke Foundation in Stekene and both the carriages have a significant place in history. Both carriages were made in Germany and had been commissioned by Hermann Göring and had transported General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his European visits. Two carriages remain at the ground and they too have a fascinating story to tell. The two carriages were seized by Hitler following the annexation of Lithuania and were bought to Germany and completely renovated. After the War it is known that Queen Elizabeth used the carriages on state visits and they were described as being luxuriously equipped. The serial numbers of the two remaining carriages confirmed their provenance and Kilian De Lille hopes they can be returned to Lithuania and housed at their national train museum. De Lille and her brothers have set up a website to clear all the other items of train equipment, vintage cars, old fire trucks and cranes collected by their late and truly eccentric father. After 40 years of looking exactly the same the landscape at FC Sobemai’s quirky ground is changing rapidly, get there soon to experience this unique place!
Sunday October 12th 2014
FC Sobemai (0) 1 (Dabout og 60)
West Eind & Boogarde Kermis (0) 3 (G-J Savat 39,44, Van Waeyenberghe 60)
Attendance: 42 (at Stadion Edelhart De Lille)
1. Pascal Pollet; 11. Dries Nieuwlaat; 12. Bjorn Veimeize; 10. Bart Lasoen; 6. Jordy Decadt; 7. Stijn Debbaet; 18. Stefaan Willems (c); 14. Jelle Bozgonjon; 5. Dries De Poprtere; 3. Bjorn Huwel; 9. Simon De Baets.
Subs (rolling): 17. Ivan Gobeyn; 4. Jelle Bosman
1. Thomas Savat; 7. Tom Henneman; 15. Gunther Geimaert; 4. Steven Cauwels; 17. Bjorn Van Waeyenberghe; 11. Gael De Sloovere; 14. Gert-Jan Savat; 16. Stefan Lamate; 9. Yarl Hautekeete; 2. Marten De Jaeger; 6. Thomas Verstringe.
Sub (rolling): 5. Dieter Dabaut