Rising costs, 28-hour journeys, and Brexit passport woe: meet the Arsenal Belgium members who go to great lengths to see their beloved Gunners
What does it take to be an overseas fan of a Premier League club? Commitment and community, discovers reporter Ruby Malone, after watching Arsenal’s first home victory of the season over Leicester with the dedicated members of Belgium’s oldest supporters’ club at the Emirates Stadium.
It was the first home game of the season and a new chant wafted its way across the electric atmosphere that filled the Emirates Stadium.
“Youri Tielemans, we’ll see you next week… ”
Arsenal is where Thomas Vermaelen has plied his trade, where Albert Sambi Lokonga will continue to develop. And it looks like Gooners are more than ready to see their team add another Belgian to the squad. Ahead of facing Fulham this evening, Tielemans remains a Leicester player, but for Arsenal Belgium, this is certainly an exciting transfer link.
Supporters’ group origins
Arsenal Belgium is an official, A-status supporters’ club with almost 200 members from across Belgium. The club was founded in the nineties by Birger Vansever and was originally called Arsenal BeNeLux – covering Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg. It was formed at a time when it was rare to see footballers from outside the UK and Ireland playing for English clubs, and even more unusual to see fans travel from abroad to watch live matches.
Birger did all the administration by himself for the first years, registering the club with Arsenal and growing the membership. But by 2014, the club had grown so much that it needed a more formal structure. And so, it became Arsenal Belgium. A club board was formed, and Walter Broeckx was elected as the chairman.
Current chairman Marcel Bogaerts has been a member since 2011 and became the club treasurer during this restructure.
“I had a financial background, so it made sense to become treasurer. I soon ended up doing much more though. So when Walter resigned, I said I wanted to be the chairman,” he told me.
The club secures an allocation of home tickets from Arsenal every season, ensuring that its members can attend matches at the Emirates, as well as the odd European game. Access to tickets for such a big club is difficult even for people residing in London, so this is a special opportunity for the Belgian fanbase. The club also holds a weekly prediction game and bi-annual in-person meet-ups, connecting fans from across the country. They often organise their events around Arsenal games, allowing passionate fans to meet up and watch their team together.
Marcel says that the club has a good relationship with Arsenal, particularly the Supporters Liaison Officer, Mark Brindle, whose role involves overseeing more than 250 supporters’ clubs across the world and dealing with ticketing distribution. On occasion, he even organises for international fanbase members to greet the first team and staff off their coach before home matches – a cordial gesture from the club.
When Walter resigned in 2021, Mark helped Marcel organise for a card to be sent from the team at Arsenal.
Marcel said: “Walter was very happy because he got a card with the signatures of Cedric, Lacazette, Martinelli, and Saka, so that was a very good gesture. It was absolutely great. We have a very good relationship with Mark.”
Like many however, Arsenal Belgium has been affected by recent world events. They did not charge a membership fee for two years due to Covid and were unable to hold any events during this period. Their ability to charter a bus for the fans to travel to games together has also been impeded by rising fuel prices and, of course, Brexit.
“A bus would cost a lot of money now and to cover that, we’d need to fill the bus. This is just not possible,” Marcel said.
“Because of Brexit, people also now have to pay €75 for a passport if they want to travel to a game. It’s just another expense for them.”
Marcel understands how important it is for fans to get to games and agrees it’s sad that the international fanbase is affected so heavily by events out of the club’s control. He, himself, has been a travelling fan many times and has had his journey disrupted on more than one occasion.
“Once we travelled to a Norwich game for a day trip and there were problems with the Eurostar. We arrived just in time for the game, but there were still problems on the way back. We left at 6 o’clock on the Sunday morning and we weren’t back in Ghent until 7.30am on Monday morning. I didn’t actually get home until 9am that morning, so it was a 28-hour day for me!”
The lengths fans will go to
Dietsen Aernouts is an Arsenal Belgium member from Loenhout, Belgium. He started supporting the Gunners at the age of 14 when he began regularly following the Premier League.
“The history of the club was one of the reasons I started supporting Arsenal, but perhaps the recent struggle even more. I wanted to support a club with an identity. I wanted to root for a club with cool players that is undertaking a journey back to the top,” Dietsen told me.
His father discovered Arsenal Belgium in 2018 when searching for match tickets online – he and Dietsen have been members ever since.
“Arsenal Belgium is a great way to get tickets to the games and I enjoy the mailing conversations. Everyone cares about the club and also about what a great experience a trip to London is.”
It takes Dietsen six hours to get from his home to the Emirates by car, boat and tube. He once completed the round-trip journey with his father in one day. Twelve hours of travel to see 90 minutes of football – that’s dedication to your club!
He and a group of his Belgian friends attended Arsenal’s first home game of the 2022/23 season at the Emirates on August 13, when they witnessed an impressive 4-2 win over Leicester City.
Dietsen said: “To watch a big victory in the first home game of the season was an ideal game. The team performance was one of the best I’ve seen at the Emirates. They dominated and overcame setbacks super quick. And the atmosphere was the best I ever experienced – inside the stadium before and after the game, it was just one big party. And during the game the crowd was never silent. It was almost like there were no away fans! Also, the support for [William] Saliba after the own goal was amazing. Nobody booed, everybody clapped. That was special to see.”
Arsenal Belgium member Sean Murray grew up in North London and was brought to his first game at the age of two. His father had a season ticket and regularly took him along to games throughout his childhood; Arsenal was in his blood before he could even say the word ‘football’. But in the late nineties, work took him and his family to Belgium – a sea away from his beloved Gunners.
Sean joined Arsenal Belgium a few years after he moved to the country, a discovery he says helped him feel closer to his football club again.
“What was really nice was being in contact with a bunch of people in the country you’re living in, who are also mad Arsenal fans,” he said.
“It’s quite amazing how Arsenal Belgium has grown over the years… When I first joined, I think it was only 40 or 50 members. They’ve done a great job of building the membership. There’s a lot of communication with the members, and the board put a lot of effort into making sure that for the yearly fee, the members get a really good service.”
In addition to meeting people with a common love for the Gunners, Sean was amazed by the dedication the international fans have for the club.
“Having been born on the Holloway Road and brought up around that area, and having gone to so many games, I know quite a lot about the club. But what really surprised me was the knowledge and the passion that these guys who are Belgian, have lived in Belgium all their lives – and have rarely had the opportunity to really go to the Arsenal – have for the club. Their passion and knowledge is just incredible.”
Sean has secured tickets for many games through Arsenal Belgium over his 20-plus years being a member. He has been to European games with the club, as well as countless games at the Emirates.
“What’s nice is the part of the ground you sit in – you tend to be sat with quite a lot of members of other international fan clubs. So, you’ll see people from all over the world and hear all sorts of different languages around you.
“I once sat beside a guy from the Far East. He’d saved up all his money in order to come to the Emirates and then travel up to Old Trafford for a game against Man United a few days later. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for him, and he was just so excited. It really was remarkable.”
Dedicated overseas fans with similar stories will help pack the Emirates tonight. For anyone out there who still believes you have to watch your team live week in, week out, to be classified a ‘real’ fan, just one bit of advice: try chatting to an international supporter!
Follow Ruby on Twitter @RubyGMalone
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