Crowd control - the nice Belgian way

Bruges' football fans used to be as feared as England's. But this week they met their match... in the King's Road and at Heston service station
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"I have a little bit of fear about...this!" Luc Demuynck pointed to the fish special on the menu at the Tower Thistle Hotel, in the shadow of Tower Bridge.

The menu served as a plan of Stamford Bridge, home to Chelsea Football Club. "I have fear about how close we are to the South Stand, to the Chelsea fans. They said we were within speaking distance."

Luc, 52, a sober man in tie and blazer, is the president of the federation of Bruges supporters, and on Tuesday lunchtime his reputation was on the line. He had organised the travel and match arrangements of 1,700 Bruges fans for the second leg of the quarter-finals of the Cup-Winners' Cup, and these things seldom ran smoothly.

About 100 of the wealthy ones were already here in this classy hotel; like Luc they had flown in earlier in the day with the club directors. But most of them - the ones whom he feared might make trouble - were on coaches crawling, by dint of a deliberately circuitous route, towards a service station on the M4.

It was 2pm. "They should be going sightseeing by now, enjoying London," Luc said, "but at about six yesterday evening I was sent a fax." He dug into his pockets. He pulled out seating plans for the whole of the lower tier of the East Stand. He pulled out tickets. He pulled out ferry times at Calais and Dover. Then he found the bad news: the sightseeing plans had been postponed indefinitely. Instead, the police would hold the 22 coaches at Heston all afternoon, until it was time to drive to Chelsea.

"Two or three hours at Heston," Luc said, "and nothing to eat." I said there never was at Heston. He said: "The fans will scream at me!"

Then Luc found another fax, a copy of the Flemish statement to be given to all Bruges supporters before they leave their coaches: "Welcome to Stamford Bridge," he translated. "We have certain rules. If you follow them your stay will stay more pretty."

He talked about how Club Brugge KV has a reputation for violent hooligans, and how at times this exceeds even the reputation of Chelsea hooligans. Next to him his 21-year-old son William nodded. There was Marseille three years ago, and then Bremen, each resulting in prosecutions and heavy fines for fans and club.

After these incidents Luc instituted a membership scheme for travelling fans, the first in Belgium. "Only people who have never been in trouble with the police can become members. I keep strict lists at home." He talked about it as a one-man crusade, one that initially was frowned upon by officials at the club. His wife tells him it's the craziest hobby she's heard of, but it seems to work.

"Strict rules for tonight," he gleams. These boiled down to no drinking, but lots of frisking. "They only get their tickets as they approach the ground. If they have even one drink of beer they will not be given one," he said.

Luc's lager arrived with his meal. William ordered mayonnaise to accompany his burger and chips. Indeed, this was how you spotted a true Belgian - by their choice of condiment. I said, "Don't let the Chelsea fans see any stains or they'll know you're Bruges." He said (like the victim of too many bad Jean-Claude Van Damme films) "... and zey'll eat me for breakfast".

At 3pm Luc and William became tourists. We walked along Tower Bridge, talking of that Texan who bought London Bridge by mistake. Nearby we paused for photographs of a model of John Major standing outside a model of 10 Downing Street. "Something is very wrong with his body," William observed.

Then we were joined by Lucien Ptuytens, the head of Belgian football security. Lucien retired as a police superintendent two years ago, and now supplements his pension by masterminding operations not only for Bruges games, but also those for Anderlecht and Antwerp.

Antwerp had the worst fans, apparently. I still found it hard to believe that such beautiful medieval cities harboured such thugs, but they had clearly met their match in Lucien. He was a stern-looking man with a pinched face and short white spiky hair. His whole body was taut with anguish, and he was not one for bide-a-wee-while conversation. The first thing he said to me, after about half an hour, was: "I have only drunk water and coffee for three days."

We caught the Tube to Sloane Square and strolled down the King's Road looking at the latest shoes. "This is where punk began," I told William. William told his dad. His dad told Lucien. "POONK!" Lucien exclaimed. He grimaced, a sign that left no one in doubt that he loathed not just football hooligans, but social miscreants of all hue and creed.

We paused for a drink at Henry J Bean's, a large American-style joint where a person called the Fat Man had once glassed an enemy. There were two Chelsea fans by the bar, and three Bruges fans at a table at the back. The latter were known to Luc and Lucien, who explained that they had somehow obtained their own tickets and organised their own travel. These fans believed Bruges would win 1-0. I asked them how, with this outcome, they would avoid the attentions of the Chelsea Headhunters; the only job the Headhunters offered you, I explained, was as a patient in intensive care. "Ah," one of them said, "we run very fast."

Back at our table, Lucien was talking about how many television channels he received at home. He could pick up 24. "We have VTM1, VTM2 ..." He ran through each of them with disbelief, and by the time he had finished his coffee was cold.

"They call me Kessler," he continued, recalling the fictional SS man. He said he had met with superintendents at Fulham police station four weeks ago to discuss tactics, should things go wrong tonight. "There will be 326 police in the ground, and 100 outside," he said, setting down a cocktail menu. "The horses will enter here [Killer Zombie], and leave here [something with Kahlua]."

We arrived at the ground at 5.30pm. The match was not due to start until 8.05, but the first coaches were already pulling in. There was a strict routine: police would board each coach and sniff for alcohol. The supporters were let out, some were frisked, and all were told to put their scarves under their jackets. They looked bedraggled but optimistic as they climbed the steps to the stand.

A coach driver told how he had to abandon two fans in Heston when they failed to return after a toilet break. "After a long time there we were told go-go-go, and so I went. I hope they got another coach."

So how is Heston these days? "Not very nice," one fan said. "We were very thirsty. But it is worth it. We are the muscles from near Brussels. We were singing."

The Club Brugge KV songs are strangely similar to songs favoured by our own fans, and are even sung in English: "We love you Bruggies we do, We love you Bruggies we do, We love you Bruggies we do, Oh Bruggies we love you."

This chant was drowned out after 16 minutes, when Chelsea scored the first of two goals, thus ensuring that Glenn Hoddle's team overturned Bruges' 1-0 lead from the first leg and advanced to the semis.

The next morning Luc said it had been a long journey home. His plane got him to bed at about 4am, the coaches got the rest back by about 7am. "You were better than us," he said, "but there was no trouble, so that was a victory for me. As they got on the coaches our fans were singing `Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life'."

And what of the two Bruges fans who had been abandoned at Heston? Still ordering all-day breakfasts at Julie's Pantry, perhaps? "I think everyone got home okay," Luc said.

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