Phoenix (FC Pyunik)

FC Pyunik have achieved so much in a relatively short period of time having been formed as recently as 1992. Initially they were called Homenetmen Yerevan and in their first season they shared the first Armenian Premier League title with Shirak Gyumri 

In 1995 Homenetmen rebranded as Pyunik which is the Armenian word for Phoenix. However, the club ran into problems and did not compete in the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The club were reborn in 2001 with a new owner, Ruben Hayrapetyan. Rather than rejoin the League in the second tier Pyunik absorbed First League champions FC Armenicum so they were restored to the Premier League. Pyunik immediately won their fourth league title finishing well clear of runners up Zvartnots-AAL. 

It was the start of huge success for Pyunik, the club’s ethos of signing the best Armenian players from other clubs as well as quality players from West Africa. They would win ten straight league titles between 2001 and 2010. They have only won one championship since, in 2014/15, but to highlight their domestic dominance their 14 titles is ten more than the next nearest challenger, Shirak Gyumri. Pyunik have also won eight Armenian Cups and nine Super Cups.

Their academy system produced Manchester United’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan. He joined the the club aged 6 in 1995 and made his professional debut at 17 in 2006. He would join FC Metalurh Donetsk in 2009. 

The club played at the massive Hrazdan Stadium until 1999 when they moved to the Republican Stadium. When the Republican was being redeveloped Pyunik used their own stadium, a 770 seater stadium which was built in 2004 after they acquired the former Kilikia Sports Complex. Since 2013 their first team games have been played at the Yerevan Football Academy Centre on the outskirts of the city. 

The clubs’ reserve side, Pyunik-2, have won the Armenian First League four times although not since 2007. They play their home games at the eye catchingly quirky Pyunik Stadium and it is here that we watch them take on Armenian First league leaders, FC Banants-2. The First League is made up entirely of reserve teams other than Erebuni who prop up the table. Banants were eight points clear of second place Pyunik at the start of play and tear into the hosts from the off. A hugely entertaining game ensues but the hosts are never really in the contest. Over 100 people watch the game, the ground has a pitch length seated stand with a media stand in the centre. It’s a decent facility and well worth a visit for a second tier game. 

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Armenian First League (22/05/2017)

FC Pyunik II  2 (Khatuev 17, Hovhannisyan 89)

FC Banants II 4 (Hambardzumyan 8, 20, Melqonyan 81, Safaryan 84)

Att:119 (at Pyunik Stadium) 

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Power and Motion (FC Dinamo Tbilisi)

When I was a kid, Dinamo Tbilisi were a real European powerhouse, state sponsored by the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs they had some magical players that formed the back bone of the Soviet national team. The likes of Aleksandre Chivadze, David Kipiani, Vitaly Dareselia, Tengiz Sulakveledze and Ramaz Shengelia won many Soviet caps between them and four of them would win Soviet Union Footballer of the year award between 1977 and 1981. Their zenith in European competition was their 1981 Cup Winners Cup Final win over East German side Carl Zeiss Jena. Under respected coach Nodar Akhalkatsi Dinamo had dispatched the likes of Kastoria, Waterford United, West Ham United and Feyenoord before goals from Dareselia and Vladimir Gutsaev saw them triumph, 2-1, in front of a meagre crowd of 4,750 people in Düsseldorf’s Rheinstadion.

From the formation of the Soviet Top League in 1936 to the break up of the Union in 1991, Dinamo were one of only three clubs never to be relegated from the top flight, the others being Dynamo Moscow and Dynamo Kiev. Dinamo Tbilisi’s undoubted star player in those early years was Boris Paichadze who scored over 100 goals for them and was voted Georgia’s greatest player of the 20th century. Dinamo’s home stadium is named after him and his statue stands outside the entrance gates. Incidentally Dinamo or Dynamo as a prefix for football clubs comes from a corruption of Greek (dynamis) and Latin (motio) words for “Power in Motion” and was first coined by the Belgian inventor of the electrical generator, Zenobe Gramme.

Since their 70’s heyday Dinamo continue to produce wonderfully talented players who progress to a bigger stage like Temuri Ketsbaia (Newcastle United), Shota Arvaladze (Rangers), Kaka Kaladze (AC Milan), Georgi Kinkladze (Manchester City) and Levan Kobiashvili who enjoyed an extensive career in the Bundesliga with Freiburg, Schalke and Hertha and is the only Georgian player to date to win 100 international caps.

The Georgian Premier League, now sponsored by Erovnuli, has changed to a spring to autumn season from this season after a mini transitional campaign in 2016. The transitional season reduced the number of clubs in the top tier from 12 to 10. It is interesting to note that during Soviet rule a number of the smaller Tbilisi clubs like Lokomotiv, Tolia, SKIF and the cities’ oldest club, Shevardeni, competed in a separate Georgian League.

We arrived in Tbilisi for the 13th round of games and an enticing looking game against defending champions FC Samtredia, the most westerly located club in the top division. On a rainy evening a small crowd gathers at this vast stadium which can hold 55,000 spectators. Originally Dinamo played at the old Central Stadium which could only accommodate 35,000 so with the club’s golden era of the 1970’s a bigger venue was needed. The Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Dinamo Stadium, built on the same site, was opened in 1976 and designed by architect Gia Kurdiani. It could hold 75,000 people and contemporary reports suggest an attendance of 110,000 watched Dinamo’s epic win over Liverpool in 1979. In 1995 the stadium was renamed in honour of Georgia’s greatest player Boris Paichadze and an international match against Germany that year also reputedly saw 110,000 gather.

In 2006 the stadium was turned into an all-seater arena style stadium with a drastically reduced capacity of 54,549. The stadium looks to have barely 600 people present (although the official gate says 1,200) all are housed in the main stand except for a small band of Dinamo ultras in the far corner who bang drums, light a flare or two and display banners supporting the disputed territory of Abkhazia. About fifteen minutes into the game and the police scurry towards one end of the stadium, suddenly around 50 fans from Samtredia arrive. Sadly a handful of them choose to display an “M13 Ultras” banner with a prominent swastika. Disappointingly there was also no attempt to remove it.

The hosts play with no little swagger in the first half and establish a comfortable looking two goal lead. However, the reigning champions come out for the second half in fighting mood and soon level the scores. However, their good work is undone when the best player on the pitch, Dinamo’s Bachana Arabuli scored in injury time with a truly monumental header. An exciting game in a magnificent stadium, it’s a shame so few pay the 65p required to watch this grand and historic club.

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Sunday May 21st 2017 – Georgia Erovnuli Liga 

Dinamo Tbilisi 3 (Arabuli 26, 90, Lochoshvili 37)

FC Samtredia 2 (Mtchelishvili 63, Datunaishvili 76)

Att: 1,200 (at Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena)

Admission: 2 Lei (65p), programme 1 Lei (32p)

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In the Hall of the Mountain Kings (FC Ararat Yerevan)

As a boy some of the mystical names of Soviet football really fascinated me, exciting names like Zenit Leningrad, Torpedo Moscow, Dinamo Tbilisi and Ararat Yerevan seem so beguiling yet somehow impossibly distant. It comes with unbridled joy on my behalf to have visited two of those boyhood wonderments in one trip.

Ararat Yerevan were formed in 1935 as Spartak Yerevan and spent many seasons in the second tier of the Transcaucasian League where their main rivals were Dinamo Tbilisi. Yerevan made it to the Soviet Top League for the first time in 1949 but it was the 1960’s that was to prove the making of the club, a decade which also saw them change their name from Spartak to Ararat in homage to the mighty and iconic mountain peaks that backdrop the city of Yerevan like a shrouded pathway to another continuum.

Despite relegation in 1963 the “White Eagles” surged back to the top tier in 1966 and stayed there until the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Winners of the Soviet Top League had been few and far between outside of the major cities of Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad. The turn of the decade, though, saw something stirring in the South Caucuses when Ararat finished as runners up in the Soviet League to Dynamo Kiev. Despite changing managers half way through the 1973 season new incumbent Nikita Simonyan oversaw a sensational league and cup double as Ararat won the league by three points ahead of Dynamo Kiev and also defeated Kiev in the Soviet Cup Final. The feat is immortalised by a huge statue of all the players and the trophy that looks out towards Ararat’s long time home, the gargantuan Hrazdan Stadium.

The Hrazdan Stadium and the statue commemorating Ararat Yerevan’s 1973 Soviet Union League and Cup double and 1975 Soviet Cup win.

The championship naturally meant competing in the European Cup for the first time an Ararat distinguished themselves by defeating Viking Stavanger and Cork Celtic before bowing out at the quarter-final stage to mighty Bayern Munich. Ararat won the Soviet Cup again in 1975 defeating Zorya Voroshilovgrad in the final but the following years runners up positions in both the League and the Cup signalled the end of a golden era for the “Wings of the Soviets”. Their second round defeat to West Ham United in the 1975/76 Cup Winners Cup tournament was their last foray into European competition for two decades and not before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a return to Armenian football.

The Armenian League started in 1992 and Ararat won the League and Cup double the following season. However, it has proven to be their last championship to date and despite four more Armenian Cup successes in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 2008 the league has been dominated by city rivals FC Pyunik who have won 14 of the 25 Armenian championships since independence. Ararat’s last sortie into European competition was in the 2008/09 UEFA Cup but they lost ignominiously to Swiss side Bellinzona, 4-1 over two legs, in the first qualifying round.

This season has been a real struggle for the once mighty White Eagles and they have propped up the six team league since the opening rounds. With such a small number of teams it means clubs play each other six times in a season and although they technically occupy a relegation spot the Armenian First League is made up almost entirely of reserve sides. Of the two first teams in the second tier, Erebuni will finish a distant last and the other side, Kotayk Abovian pulled out of the league and their results were expunged.

Between 1971 and 2015 Ararat played their home games at the incredible Hrazdan Stadium, hewn into a hillside its tiers lurch above the cityscape and its four iconic floodlight pylons can be seen for miles around. The ownership of the stadium fell into private hands and after a falling out between the owners and the Armenian FA over a proposed renovation programme to obtain a UEFA four star rating, no one has played there and, indeed, even the pitch was ripped up and not replaced. Since their eviction Ararat have played at the equally superb Republican Stadium but recently, due to poor results and lack of support, the more modest Ministry of Finance Stadium (also known as the Mika Stadium) has hosted their matches.

Despite free entry to the Mika there is scant interest in today’s game against FC Shirak from Gyumri. Officially 500 are in attendance although in reality less than half that figure was present, football fans in Armenia are apathetic due to constant allegations of bribery and corruption in the game. Seemingly more interest and excitement was obtained at the adjacent sports hall for an important Futsal match. Ararat look a poor side and the visitors, backed by a small band of supporters who have made the trip to the capital, soon rack up a three goal lead. Ararat did pull one back just before halftime but rarely threatened a comeback until an injury time goal made the final score seem closer than it actually was.

It is an enduring tragedy of Armenian football that its best loved and traditionally its best supported club languish so far away from their competitors. Sadly with finance a problem and a dispute between Ararat’s owners and the Armenian FA, it would seem that position is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

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Saturday May 20th 2017 – Armenian Premier League

FC Ararat Yerevan 2 (Safaryan 44, S.Mkrtchyan 90)

FC Shirak Gyumri 3 (Hovsepyan 7, Prljevic 36, Poghosyan 43)

Att: 217 (head count, officially 500 present, played at the MF Mika Stadium)

No admission charged, no programme

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From Landhof to Joggeli (FC Basel)

FC Basel were formed in 1893 and are one of Switzerland’s most successful clubs with twenty Swiss Super League/ Nationalliga A titles to their name. Only Grasshoppers Zurich with 27 have more although they haven’t won the championship since 2003. FC Basel have dominated the Super League recently, their first title did not come until 1952/53 but eight of their titles have come in the last eight seasons such has been their superiority.

They were formed after a meeting in the Schuhmachern-Zunft restaurant and one of their early captains was Hans “Joan” Gamper who went on to form FC Barcelona. From the early days FC Basel played at the Landhof stadium in Kleinbasel which still exists as a football ground with a large stand and clubhouse. The Landhof even held a few international matches for Switzerland, including a 9-0 win for England in 1909. Since FC Basel vacated in 1967 the club used it as a training ground but since the 1990’s it just been used by local sports clubs.

The club moved into the old St Jakob-Park stadium which was replaced with the current arena style stadium between 1998 and 2001. During this time FCB played their home games at BSC Old Boys’ Stadion Schützenmatte. As the stadium, designed by Herzog and De Meuron and known locally as “Joggeli”, was chosen to host six games in Euro 2008 St Jakob-Park was expanded to hold 42,500, although some seats were later removed to a more manageable 37,500. The venue also hosted the 2016 Europa League Final between Liverpool and Sevilla.

The arena is surrounded by retail outlets and the shell of the stadium is wrapped in translucent membrane which can be illuminated. It was not lit up today on a very soggy afternoon and looked, I have to say, a little uninviting from the outside. Inside though is a different story, food outlets and souvenir stalls are abundant and a very healthy crowd gathers for what is expected to be an easy win for the hosts who had already mathematically won the league.

The visitors, FC Thun, are in no mood to roll over for the perennial champions and lead 1-0 and 2-1 before Basel scored a third goal a minute from time to capture what looked to be three more points. However, Thun’s Serbian forward Dejan Sorgić spoilt the celebrations with a deserved equaliser with the last kick of the game, a goal which completely a highly impressive hat-trick.

FC Basel have that air of a well run club from top to tail, their reserves play in the third tier at the Stadion Rankhof which is also used by their official feeder team, the fourth tier club, Concordia Basel.
St Jakob Park is easy to find and most spectators catch the No.14 tram from the city centre.

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Sunday May 14th 2017 – Raiffessen Super League

FC Basel (1893) 3 (Steffen 24, Elyounoussi 76, Die 89)
FC Thun 3 (Sorgić 17,64,90)

Att: 26,844 (at St.Jakob Park)

Admission: CF20 (£16) free programme

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Alone Again In The Lap of Luxury (PFC Slavia Sofia)

PFC Slavia Sofia were formed in 1913 by students and the new clubs’ first president, Dimitar Blagoev-Palio, was only 21 years old at the time. Since those formative years the club has won seven League titles and seven Bulgarian Cups to its honours list. Their most recent League success came in 1996, the year they also last won the Bulgarian Cup defeating Levski 4-0 in the final.

Slavia had their best run in Europe in the 1966/67 Cup Winners Cup when they defeated Swansea City, Racing Club Strasbourg and Servette before bowing out to Rangers at the semi final stage. In 1969 Slavia briefly merged with Lokomotiv Sofia under the name of ZhSK Slavia. However, the merger last just two years after 100,000 supporters demanded the the clubs be allowed to operate as separate entities once again.

Originally the club played at the ground of its predecessor club Sport Club Razvitie. The club was then allocated land adjacent to the Russian Monument in Sofia where they played until they moved to their own Slavia Stadium in 1960. The stadium is located in South West Sofia in the area known as Ovcha Kupel.

After several attempts at renovation the Slavia Stadium holds a little over 25,000 people and also hosts the under 21 matches of the Bulgarian national team. Paradoxically new stadium criteria bought in by the Bulgarian FA means Slavia cannot play home games at their own stadium as there are no floodlights! For this season it means all their home matches are being staged at the 43,000 capacity Vasil Levski National Stadium well away from their traditional support. Their attendances have been ridiculously low, even though it is only 5 Lev (£2.50) to get in at the Vasil Levski. For today’s game it appeared that there were around 200 people rattling around this vast empty amphitheatre with around 40 in the sector allocated to fans from Plovdiv. The official attendance, presumably just the paid ticket sales, was 90 which makes the whole exercise frankly embarrassing for the League and for Slavia. Hopefully the Bulgarians can follow the Hungarian model in bringing their ageing stadia up to a decent standard.

Today’s game is part of the First League’s relegation pool. This has two groups of four whose top two proceed to a play off for a Europa League spot while the bottom two in each group go into a relegation play-off. Today Botev Plovdiv are the visitors to the capital and they easily outplay a dispirited looking Slavia. There is a small group of around 50 Slavia ultras in this vast stadium and unfortunately they seem happy, in between bouts of their anthem “Samo Slavia” (“Alone Slavia”), to direct monkey chants towards Botev’s French striker Omar Kossoko. However, almost immediately after the chants started Kossoko responded in the best way possible with a clinical finish following a poor attempt to save a shot by the home goalkeeper. The visitors doubled their lead before half time when Antonio Vutov, on loan from Italian side Udinese, waltzed through a cumbersome Slavia defence before finding the net with some aplomb. Kossoko netted the third in the second period and the visitors ended up as very easy winners.

Feels such a shame that such a vast modern stadium has a few dozen people watching matches with little or no atmosphere. Surely common sense should prevail and Slavia will be allowed to play games in front of something resembling a crowd at their own stadium.

Saturday April 22nd 2017 – PFG First League

PFC Slavia Sofia 0
PFC Botev Plovdiv 3 (Kossoko 34,53, Vutov 44)

Att:90 (at Stadion Vasil Levski)
Admission: 5 Lev (the Main A stand only open)

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Whatever Happened To All Of The Heroes? (PFC Levski Sofia)

PFC Levski Sofia were formed in 1914 and are one of Bulgaria’s most successful clubs with 26 championships, only CSKA with 31, have more titles. They were formed as a football wing of the Levski Sports Club who had taken their name from the Bulgarian national hero, Vasil Levski. Born Vasil Ivanov Kunchev, Levski he would be the spearhead for Bulgaria independence from the Ottomans. Sadly he would never see the end of his revolution, he was hanged by the Ottomans at the age of 35.

Levski originally played their home games on Levski Field (Grishte Levski) a stadium that would eventually hold 10,000 people. The stadium had only a short life, finished in 1934 it was knocked down 15 years later to make way for the new National Stadium. Levski were moved to the Yunak Stadium which was almost adjacent to their own ground. Here they shared with other clubs like FC 13 Sofia. Eventually the site of the Yunak was also needed for the National Stadium project and Levski had to find a new home.

Under the auspices of architect Lazar Parashkevanov the new Levski Stadium began construction in 1960 in the Suhata reka district of Sofia. Although the Levski Stadium was its official name the fans dubbed it “Gerena” (the flood plain) after the area it was located in. The stadium was opened officially in 1963 with a game against Spartak Pleven. It held some 36,000 spectators with the main stand being covered.

In 1969 the authorities merged Levski and Spartak Sofia and the stadium became a multi sport venue catering for boxing, gymnastics, volleyball and weightlifting. The adjacent training ground with four pitches was also built at this time. For a brief period following trouble at the Cup Final of 1985 against CSKA, the authorities changed Levski’s name to Vitosha Sofia. While some players and officials were banned for life, the club were allowed to re-adopt the name Levski after four years had passed under the Vitosha moniker. In 1990 the stadium was renamed in honour of one of Levski’s greatest players, Georgi Asparuhov. Known as Gundi he was one of the most prolific scorers of his generation and an icon for the Levski supporters. He was killed in a car crash in 1971 aged only 28.

From 1992 the plan was to turn the stadium into an all seater arena. Due to economic problems the project took seven years to complete with Levski having to play hone games at the National Stadium in the interim. The eyecatching scoreboard surrounded by the Cyrillic letter for “L” (Л), was built in 2006. Plans for the total redevelopment of the ground were announced in 2011 but so far only the new main stand, opened in April 2016, has materialised. Strangely this leaves the stadium without a roof on any part. The stadium which has held 60,000 on two occasions, against Górnik Zabrze in 1970 and four years later against Pirin Blagoevgrad, now holds a more modest 25,000 and is currently called the Vivacom Arena following sponsorship.

Tonight’s game is against FC Dunav from the northern town of Ruse close to the border with Romania. It is part of the end of season round of games when the league table splits in to a championship and relegation pool. With Razgrad based side Ludogorets looking odds on to win a sixth successive title, the chase is on for the other European competition places. On a bitterly cold night, there are periodic flurries of snow, a meagre crowd of 620 gather in the Asparuhov Stadium. The majority gather at the south end of the stadium where the Levski ultras sing constantly and let off a token bit of pyro in the second half. In the away end around 20 hardy Dunav fans who have made the long trip to the capital.

The game’s opening goal came as early as the sixth minute when a free kick from the impressive Spanish midfielder Añete took a flick off the head of Dunav’s Miroslav Budinov and nestled into the net beyond the reach of the goalkeeper. The rest of the game was played out in snowy conditions and just when it looked like Dunav would not find an equaliser, Lebanese midfielder Samir Ayass seized on a poor clearance to drill home from ten yards.

With Levski’s last Championship back in 2009 and a rich heritage of heroes like Vasil Levski and Gundi Asparuhov casting such a voluminous shadow the club are in real need of a new hero to help end the domestic dominance of Ludogorets and bring success back to the capital.

Friday April 21st 2017 – PFG First League
PFC Levski Sofia 1 (Budinov og 6)
FC Dunav Ruse (2010) 1 (Ayass 76)

Att:620 (at Stadion Georgi Asparuhov)

Admission: 20 Lev (c.£10) to main stand although tickets to other parts of the ground were priced at 5 and 10 Lev.

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Tubize, or not Tubize, that is the question? (AFC Tubize)

The current AFC Tubize is the result of a 1990 merger between F.C. Tubize and Amis Réunis de Tubize. The former had begun life in 1919 as Athletic Club Tubizien while Amis Réunis appeared on the scene in 1974. The old Tubize club had merged with several other clubs over the years so a merger of the two remaining clubs representing this small Walloon city made sense if the town was to compete at the highest level.

The combined club progressed quickly under the astute coaching of Theo Buelinckx and in seven seasons Tubize moved from the third division of the provincial league to the third division of the national league, a remarkable four promotions.

After Buelinckx retired the club still continued their meteoric rise, promotion to the second tier came in 2002/03 and five seasons later they were promoted to the top division for the first time in their history. 

Unfortunately for Tubize the Belgian FA decided to reduce the top division from 18 clubs to 16 for the 2008/09 season and after finishing 17th the club slipped through the trap door with Dender and Mons, Roeselare surviving in the relegation play-offs. Tubize’s one season in the top flight had required the club to increase the capacity at the Stade Leburton from 5,000 to 8,000 seats and vastly improve media facilities.

The club has remained in the Second Division without really challenging for a return to the Pro League. The most recent time the club caused some headlines was in 2013 when they signed the former Korean international Hwang Jin-Sung. The signing provoked such interest in Tubize from his homeland that in August 2014 the Korean sports marketing firm, Sportizen, bought the club in its entirety.

The Stade Leburton has a modern stand on one side with plush corporate facilities and restaurants. Behind the far end goal is a huge seated stand which has one sector segregated off for away fans. Opposite the main stand is a small well elevated covered terrace where a small band of ultras congregate. Behind the near goal is a smart clubhouse. On the approach to the ground are two enormous statues of a Belgian forward and goalkeeper, they are quite an extraordinary sight.

Something Tubize may have to work on is their customer service. The ticket seller indicated that the seated stand was not available (there were loads of empty seats), and the stewards then said all bags of any type were not permitted into the stadium! There were only 500 people in attendance and they could have easily searched all those with bags but instead insisted that they were returned to cars. Quite what someone unaware of this ridiculous rule would do with their bag if arriving by public transport is beyond me. If that doesn’t rub you up the wrong way enough the insistence of checking your ticket every time you leave or go into the stand is a considerable annoyance. The standing ticket only gets you into one sector and you cannot physically get into another sector, so the checking of tickets is absolutely pointless.

On the field Tubize are soundly beaten today by an impressive looking Lommel side. The hosts’ cause is not helped by the dismissal on the half hour mark of Mamadou Diallo for apparently elbowing an opponent. The defeat had repercussions for the Tubize coach, Thierry Goudet, who after just three months in the job was relieved of his duties in the days after this heavy loss.

Aside from the poor stewarding of the ground the Leburton is a modern venue set in a wooded hollow and makes for a pleasant afternoon. The food kiosk sells a “country” sausage which was extremely tasty. 

With this being the first season of the smaller eight team professional Division 1B, it must be a concern to the club that they only managed to pull in 500 customers for this game. It will be interesting to see how this modest club from out in the sticks will compete with the more traditional powerhouses like Antwerp, Lierse and Union Saint-Gilloise.

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Proximus League – 14/08/2016

AFC Tubize 0

Lommel United 4 (Berben 17, Cauwenberg  40, De Bruyn 68, Adesanya 90)

Att: 500

Admission €8 (standing) Programme Free

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Tubize ticket