Tongeren is mostly known as Oldest city of Belgium and her Roman history shown by the ancient architecture. At first sight there is not much to discover about football, especially if you know that the last professional football club – KSK Tongeren – left the city in 2006 to play football 50 kilometres down the road after a merge with FC Hedera Millen. But don’t get fooled, because Tongeren houses an absolute diamant for the football romanticist, Stadion Sportpleinstraat the lost ground of Cercle Tongeren.
To find it, you need to have some Sherlock Holmes skills or you have received perfect directions. It is very well hidden. While everybody is still recovering from the Christmas dinners, a couple of friends and I walk down the Sportpleinstraat on that sunny Sunday morning. Besides us, there is no one to be seen. Furthermore, no indication of any football stadium around whatsoever. Just a parking lot, some grass-land and a couple of houses.
After walking down the gravel road we spot something between the threes what looks like a stand. This completely decayed main stand is what is left of the former stadium of Cercle Sportif Tongrois, which was changed to KTSV Cercle in 1947. They abandoned this ground in 1969 and is left for Mother Nature ever since. A remarkable piece of football history.
Despite the fact that they try to keep people out it is very easy to get in. Not completely without any risk I inspect every part of the main stand. Especially the fragile roof is looking like it is going to collapse any second. It doesn’t bother me at all as I check a piece of barbwire closing a former entrance. Parts of the advertisement are still in good condition which amazes me after such a long time.
The pitch is used as a home for horses nowadays. Perfect to get a good look at the entire stand. It still has the old players’ tunnel which gives you access to the dressing rooms, at least what is left of it. Not much space there. In the catacombs I find the well know You’ll Never Walk Alone written by some Hell Side supporters, the fanatics of Standard Liege. I wonder if this particular person ever realized what this phrase means in the history of this stadium. Besides the fact that Stadion Sportpleinstraat is a beautiful lost ground, it is also has a dark chapter in the Belgium football history.
It is January 5th, 1944. Despite the fact that Germany suffers heavy losses all around Europe, they still have the power in Belgium. A Regulation states that every male born in 1920 or 1921 should report himself at the Werbstelle. If you refused to do this, they would do everything to hunt you down and deport you to one of the working camps in Germany. Football matches were the perfect opportunity for the Fahndung(German Investigation Service) to find these men. Especially on that particular day a lot of young men got out of their hiding spots to visit the match between two oldest clubs of the region, Cercle vs. Excelsior FC from Hasselt. It is derby day!
The story goes that the young men were informed at the gate of stadium about a possible razzia by the Germans. But the love for football proved to be so big that they would risk their lives on this special day. The excitement for the match, the adrenaline, was simply too massive. Also the Germans were aware of the rivalry and used it in their advantage. Hundreds of soldiers, together with the Gestapo and deserted Belgians, were gathered to entirely besiege the stadium. The doors were sealed. Especially the terraces alongside the train tracks were the perfect spot for the ambush. There was no getting away from it.
The players were hiding in the small catacombs, full of fear. The Germans let them be. Relieve on the one side, disbelieve on what happened on the other side. Some of the young men survived the working camps. One of them was Pierre Schoefs, who wrote a book about this historical drama. It is called Tongeren-Berlin 1940-1945.
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