BY PETER MILES
I love football grounds; big or small, grand or rudimentary, I just love them. They are a focal point of the locality, a uniting force, a place to gather and pass the time. Paradoxically to these places that come alive with the vibrancy of a match day is the morbid desolation of an abandoned ground. Unkempt, unloved and unwanted: what is their story, what secrets do they hold?
Abandoned grounds have always bothered me, I get why some clubs have to move on to pastures new with the ever expanding population and demand for land, in most cases it just makes plain good fiscal sense. But to leave a ground for years rotting and overtaken by nature is to my mind nothing short of criminal. There is no sense to it and that makes these once loved places profoundly sad and moving places to visit.
In 2009, I was on holiday in Malta and happened past the old ruined Empire Stadium in Gzira. Subsequent research found that this once magnificent venue had been mothballed in 1980 when the new national stadium at Taâ€™Qali had opened. The mothballing became permanent and it lay derelict until finally demolished earlier in 2015 some 35 years after the last ball was kicked there. Surely I had stumbled on the record holder? The most abandoned of all abandoned grounds ever? No.
Back in 1969, the year I was born no less, in the modest Limburg town of Tongeren, two local football clubs merged. Cercle Tongeren had been formed in 1908 and had been assigned the matricule of 51 by the Belgian FA, the matricule being a zealously guarded acknowledgement of age, honour and venerability. They had led a fairly unremarkable life on the field as had Koninklijke (meaning Royal, ascent given after 25 years of membership to the Belgian FA) Patria Tongeren. The merger of the two clubs as Koninklijke Sportkring (KSK) Tongeren worked well and the new club became a force in the second tier of Belgian football and even spent two seasons in the First Division in the early 1980s. The merger, of course, meant one club had two grounds and the new club went to play at the De Motten ground of Patria while KSK Tongerenâ€™s ground at Sportpleinstraat was used briefly by reserves and youths before falling into disrepair.
Incredibly this stadium is still there, itâ€™s been rotting away as long as I have walked (and indeed crawled) on this planet. Nature has taken over, an aged tree has crashed through the roof of the stand, but adverts for products and businesses that have long gone are clearly visible. What stories this place must have, I thought. Later, I discovered what a remarkable story lay hidden underneath this overgrown wreckage.
Back on January 30th 1944, Europe was still deeply engulfed in the horrors of World War II and the Belgian province of Limburg, Dutch speaking and bordering the Netherlands, was occupied by German forces. In a rare show of restraint, the local populace were allowed to gather in great numbers at Sportpleinstraat to watch Cercle Tongeren take on near neighbours Excelsior Hasselt in the B series of the wartime Second series. What transpired was a calculated and cynical plan hatched by the Gestapo. The Germans were feeling the strain of the war and troop numbers were depleting fast. On January 5th the occupying commanders declared that all local men born in 1920 and 1921 had to hand themselves in and enlist to help the Germans. Those that failed to comply with the order would be rounded up and deported to a labour camp.
The Gestapo knew the Limburg derby between the regionâ€™s two oldest adversaries would prove too tempting for many young men who had thus far hidden in outbuildings and cellars to avoid the enforced draft. The Germans also knew the layout of the ground would prove easy to contain the crowd. The ground was approached by a single track and the far side was hemmed in by a railway line embankment; the way you came in, was the only way out. It was the perfect â€œrat trapâ€.
As the match progressed, hundreds of German soldiers, collaborators, police and the Gestapo descended on Sportpleinstraat. Young men were pulled from the crowd and dragged away. For many it was their last moments on Belgian soil. Many never returned home; one who did was Pierre Schoefs who was detained and sent to hard labour at Spandau and later wrote a book about his horrific experience.
The match ended, the result immaterial as players of both sides cowered in the dressing rooms. The players were left alone but all had lost someone they knew, friends, and in some cases brothers, had vanished in a scene of sheer chaos at this long abandoned playground.