The Twelfth Man

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Club Brugge 1 v 1 Cercle Brugge (15.08.2014)

How many times have you heard the “fans are like a 12th man” cliché rolled out over the years? More often than not on the night of a big cup tie, usually a 2nd leg, and when the home teams still got a bit to do to get a result! In England, the fans on Anfield’s Kop and at Pompey’s Fratton Park are often known as the 12th man; abroad it’s synonymous with supporters of teams such as Feyenoord, Lech Poznan and Red Star Belgrade.

The 12th man, simply a psychological influence on the beautiful game that often manifests itself in the form of a loud, passionate and sometimes hostile crowd. It’s a mysterious phenomenon that often has a tangible influence during 90 minutes of football, affecting the performances of 22 professional players and of course the three match officials! Whether its a positive influence on the home team – players suddenly finding that extra 10%, or feeling more confident as a result of the adulation shown by the supporters; or conversely, a negative influence on the away team – players shirking from their responsibilities, missing a penalty, a momentary lack of concentration and focus that can lead to a mistake, or getting sent off having been antagonised by a group of blokes and some well-coordinated abuse from the stands. Don’t forget the match officials either, who are partial to succumbing to the divine intervention of the 12th man, seemingly coerced into making favourable decisions.

Some clubs value their 12th man more than others though, and as a sign of gratitude, or a tip of the golfers hat if you like, no fewer than 60 clubs across Europe have officially retired their no.12 shirt in honour of their own supporters. Examples include Hadjuk Split, Sparta Prague, Lens, Werder Bremen, Ferencvaros, Torino, Sporting Lisbon, Rapid Bucharest, Zenit St Petersburg, Malmo, Basel and Besiktas; clubs that all have the No 12 missing from their squad lists this season.

Other clubs have opted for the personal touch and retired shirt numbers that have much more sentiment to the ultras that support them so passionately. In Greece, Panathinaikos have retired the No 13 shirt in respect of the Gate 13 ultras. A nice touch in an era where the fans are often treated as by-products of football rather than the heartbeat.

So unlike Tottenham’s efforts to replace Gareth Bale, I’ll move seamlessly onto Club Brugge, one such club to have retired their own No 12 in honour of the ‘Blue Army’ Ultras. The early signs that the 12th man would be on song was visible some five hours before kick-off, as ‘The Locals’ or ‘Blue Army’ started to gather outside a small bar on the corner of t’Zand and Noordzandstraat at the corner of t’Zand Square. Regular bursts of familiar terrace songs in English rang out across the square as the strong Belgian beers began to flow. That coupled with massive flags and banners used as ‘road curtains’ for passing buses to get through; a guy on pedalo-car with Club Brugge paraphernalia; and an older woman with pink hair in a Club Brugge kit made for an interesting pre game drink!

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The Bruges Derby, is surprisingly the only derby currently played out in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League. Like AC and Inter Milan, both clubs share the same ground as their home. Club Brugge are traditionally the ‘bigger’ and more ‘popular’ club in the city, and like Man Utd and Liverpool its fan base reaches far wider than the West Flanders region of the country. Club Brugge have a strong history in Belgian Football, they are 13 times champions, and are still the only Belgian club to have reached the final of the European Cup where they lost 1-0 to Liverpool back in 1978. Cercle Brugge on the other hand are the smaller, less fashionable club in the city, and have lived in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours for most of their existence. Having said that they also have a long established history and were three times Belgian Champions back in the early 1900’s, and according to an interview on the Ultras Tifo website with the Ultras Bryggja group, Cercle are much happier being the ‘little peasant club’ than the ‘big annoying one’.

The Jan Breydel Stadion is located quite a way out of town in the suburb of St Andries. Buses 5 and 15 run you out to the ground in 15-20 mins, cost 2 euros, and using either routes means there is a bus every 10 minutes.  The buses are fairly small so allow some time to make your journey out as I could imagine things would get pretty packed the closer you get to kick off. Alighting the bus in St Andries there are a number of bars located close to the ground on Gistelse Steenweg Street, but there is also an open air fan park located outside the East Tribune which is worth a look. The latter uses a cashless payment system which effectively means you have to queue twice to get your pre match pint!

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The imposing Noord Tribune that houses the Blue Army Ultras…

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Inside the ground, and moments before kick-off, I was keeping my fingers crossed for an old Look At These Scenes favourite – the unveiling of a decent pre match tifo! After a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone, the Blue Army didn’t disappoint, opting for a double surfer flag and flag waving combo to welcome the players as they entered the pitch. A ‘Dank je wel’ to ‘The Locals 78’ for that one!

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Cercle Brugge had a rather surprisingly small ‘away’ following for the derby which barely half filled the away section in the corner of the upper tier at the south end of the stadium.

Right from the off Club Brugge took control of the game, dominating possession when they had the ball, and winning it back almost instantly when they didn’t. Cercle Brugge were like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights as they could barely string more than a few passes together let alone get out of their own half. The ease at which Club Brugge took control of this game seemed to filter into the stands, and for a derby day the atmosphere seemed fairly flat at times. It was as if 10 men could have done the job let alone the need for any intervention from the 12th! It was one of those occasions where you can almost sense an air of expectancy within the crowd and that it was only a matter of time before a goals fest would commence. If my sense was correct, perhaps it was this that led to a less intense derby experience than I had perhaps first anticipated.

P1040003That ‘expectant’ first goal came in the 29th minute from Chilean forward Nicolas Castillo after a beautifully weighted cross from Nikola Storm dropped just beyond the Cercle centre halves head and nicely on the chest of Castillo, who controlled well and slotted home from 10 yards.

In the second half Cercle Brugge finally awoke from their headlight induced trance and began to get back into the game. It was complete role reversal from the first half and Cercle suddenly looked like a completely different team and began to ask the Club Brugge back four some serious questions. A 66th minute equaliser by the superbly named Kabananga suddenly sparked the crowd into life – the Cercle ultras going mad, and the Blue Army finally responding as if to give their side a kick up the arse. It was game on, when it really shouldn’t have been!

The rest of the second half was superb, the growing anxiety of the Club Brugge fans, and the excitement from the Cercle ultras added an extra edge to the game that was missing in the first. The thought of little old Cercle literally nicking a point off their more illustrious rivals was too much to bare for some.

Despite the growing anxiety in the stands, Club Brugge continued to look dangerous and their no. 42 – Nikola Storm – particularly caught the eye as he caused havoc on the left side. He more than lived up to his name by dare I say it “having a stormer”. Composed on the ball, with a good turn of pace and the ability to beat his man in tight spaces, the 19 year old certainly looked one to watch on this performance. But with my limited knowledge on Belgian football take that tip with a pinch of salt, as it could have been more to do with Cercle’s weak left side than a potential world beater in the making! Anyway I’ll stick my ‘wanna be’ scouting neck out and say he’s one for the future regardless! Watch this space.

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By the time the 4th official had signalled 4 minutes of injury time the game was frantic as both sides had opportunities to win it and lose it depending on whether your were a ‘blue’ or a ‘green’. Cercle looked dangerous from a couple of late set pieces, and then Club Brugge hit them on the counter attack, with Nicolas Castillo bursting through one on one with only the keeper to beat. The Blue Army Ultras almost started celebrating the last minute winner before Castillo pulled the trigger, but he duly smashed the ball high and handsome and the groans of disbelief that followed were deafening! Castillo buried his head in his hands and prayed for the Jan Breydel turf to open up and swallow him. The 12th man wasn’t impressed, and nor was gaffer Michel Preud’Homme (remember him from Belgium’s 1986 and 1990 world cups) as he started punching the dug out in disgust!

1-1 at the final whistle. As for the ‘12th man’; well to be honest they weren’t as loud and passionate as I was anticipating, certainly for a derby day, and at times the noise levels inside the ground were pretty flat. That sense of ‘expectancy’  that I felt, took the edge off the experience for me, and although you can’t expect a rocking atmosphere every time you go abroad I have clearly been spoilt with tastes of Legia Warsaw, Lech Poznan and Borussia Dortmund in seasons past. Having said all that, Club Brugge have a colourful and passionate set of fans, and I think they will probably have bigger games than their derby this season when Anderlecht and Standard Liege come to town. On the whole, the Jan Breydel Stadion is a classic old ground, and Bruges itself is a fantastic city well worth visiting. If Club or Cercle happen to be playing at home whilst your there its a bonus.

Tickets:

Tickets were easy to get gold of and can be easily purchased by registering an account on the clubs online ticketing website. You don’t need to be a member, and a ticket in the west stand will set you back 25 euros. Tickets go on sale 6 weeks before each game.

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