Club Brugge's Europa League match against Napoli last night was played behind closed doors because of the recent terrorism alerts in Belgium. FFT's Chris Flanagan was there to discover just what it's like to watch a European fixture in an empty stadium...
FFT is trying to find the way into Club Brugge's Jan Breydelstadion, and is finding out that it's not as easy as it first appeared.
Follow the crowd is the usual rule of thumb when in doubt – except there is no crowd. On the gentle amble from our hotel near the city's railway station, FFT hasn't encountered a single person walking in the direction of the stadium. Children doing what seemed to be some sort of sponsored walk in hi-vis jackets, yes. People going to the match, no.
Streets that would have been a hive of activity an hour before kick-off instead resemble a ghost town
Streets that would have been a hive of activity an hour before kick-off instead resemble a ghost town. FFT eventually finds the press entrance by heading around the corner to a little side road, walking along a dirt track and locating the small gate to the stadium, hidden behind some TV trucks in the car park. It's like trying to break into a particularly well floodlit Fort Knox, but we've made it.
FFT has seen many football games over the years, but this is definitely one of the eeriest. A big crowd was expected for Club Brugge's glamour fixture of the Europa League group stage, until a controversial decision was taken only two days before the match to play it behind closed doors.
Bruges' mayor Renaat Landuyt first decided that Napoli's 3,000 fans would be banned from attending, then only hours later home supporters were shut out too.
Club Brugge had hosted Zulte Waregem as normal in the Jupiler Pro League on Saturday, but the extra policing required for Napoli's visit was deemed impossible – officers were unable to leave Brussels, where the terrorism threat was still at its highest on Tuesday following the recent Paris attacks and the news that some of the assailants had come from the Belgian capital.
With Napoli fans staying at home, bars and restaurants sat half empty in the afternoon before this Europa League fixture, with a lone police car parked in the square. The terrorism threat may have dropped to level three in Brussels since Tuesday, but police are still on watch.
Plenty, though, did not agree with the decision to shut out fans at the Jan Breydelstadion. Club Brugge politely declined to give their views to the media before the game, wary of exacerbating a complex political situation, but they are reported to have taken a hit of €750,000 (£525,000) because of ticket refunds and lost catering opportunities.
It's strange because I think it's easier to get your fans into the stadium and control them than keep them out
"For a ticket it's 30 or 40 Euros," journalist Cedric de Volder, of Belgian website Voetbalkrant, explains to FFT before kick-off. "Then in Belgium it's a habit to eat some fries and a hamburger. That's 10 Euros. Then some beers. 20 Euros. Multiply it by 30,000 and it's a lot.
"It's a shame for Club Brugge and for the fans. It's strange because I think it's easier to get your fans into the stadium and control them than keep them out. We have to accept every measure that is taken, but the fans are not happy.
"People aren't scared here. If this game had been played normally, the stadium would have been full. If Belgium had played Spain four days after the attack in Paris, the stadium would have been full.
"Last Saturday Club Brugge played at home to Zulte Waregem and there was no problem, nothing at all. The police force did terrific work and it was controlled. Bags weren't allowed but OK, so be it.
"This weekend Zulte Waregem versus Standard Liege and Charleroi versus Lokeren are without visiting fans, because when the police force have to control visiting fans that's when the presence needs to be big and that's the problem. But Bruges said no fans at all. Why? We don't know.
"I've been to pre-season games without fans but this is the first time a lot of us have seen this for an official match. Brugge have very lively fans and they can give the team that little bit of extra. Without the fans, it's an advantage for Napoli.
"The club have asked the fans not to come to the stadium, not to try to get in, because UEFA are here and there could be penalties. There are a few bars nearby but I don't think a lot of fans will come to the stadium."
Making feelings heard
In total there were maybe 300 to 400 people in the Jan Breydelstadion, including press, police and each club's army of backroom staff
That prediction was not proved entirely right. During the warm-up, players began to glance towards one corner of the stadium, where what looked like flames were springing up just outside the gates. Around 200 Club Brugge fans had arrived outside their traditional home end, armed with flares in an attempt to make their feelings known about the decision to shut them out.
While the Stone Roses et al blared out over the PA system to no one in particular inside the stadium, firecrackers and chanting could be heard outside. Two club officials were reportedly injured as they attempted to quell the protests.
200 Bruges fans outside protesting at the game being played behind closed doors, can hear firecrackers going off. pic.twitter.com/rPYQPKBZpT
— Chris Flanagan (@CFlanaganFFT) November 26, 2015
The chanting continued as players took to the field for kick-off, greeted inside the stadium by the very definition of a smattering of applause from the 100 or so dignitaries in the main stand. In total there were maybe 300 to 400 people in the Jan Breydelstadion, including press, police and each club's army of backroom staff.
Things seemed to calm down soon enough as a football match broke out almost unannounced. It wasn't the worst game in the world by any means, but without a crowd to react to every pass, tackle and throw-in, it was rather difficult to sustain dramatic interest.
In a silence broken only by the cries of the players, Club Brugge toiled with former Middlesbrough and Burnley forward Jelle Vossen up front, while Napoli were in second gear – having already qualified for the last 32, and having left the likes of Gonzalo Higuain and Pepe Reina in Italy.
Not that it dampened the enthusiasm of Club Brugge's bear mascots, stationed in the home end. Beside a number of huge banners that the club's supporters had been allowed to put in place for the match, Belle and Bene curiously insisted on looking animated throughout – despite the fact that they were playing to an audience of zero, before three seemingly random blokes joined them in the second half.
The three amigos didn't quite replicate the noise of the 5,000-plus who normally occupy that stand but, fair play to them, they were giving it a go. It later transpires that one of them was actually the club's president, eager to cheer on his side in the absence of the supporters. Meanwhile the police started to look increasingly bored, with no ruffians to keep in line.
Romania's ex-Tottenham defender Vlad Chiriches netted the only goal of the game to give Napoli victory, before the respective cosmopolitan squads headed off to translate 'playing behind closed doors was very strange' into several different languages. FFT definitely heard one player utter the phrase 'très bizarre', and we assume they weren't casually making some unrelated comment about Branislav Ivanovic's inclusion on the shortlist for world team of the year.
Debut to remember
Ivanovic's Chelsea team-mate Nathaniel Chalobah, on a season-long loan at Napoli, was among those to feature in this game – although he is very much speaking in English as he has a quick word with FFT about his first start for the Serie A title chasers.
Napoli's No.94 (the year of his birth) had to wait for his chance but took the opportunity to impress Maurizio Sarri, the manager who admitted he knew nothing about Chalobah when the England Under-21 international arrived in August, and who merrily puffed on a cigarette all the way to the press conference after this match in trademark Italian style.
It can be tough moving to a different league but if you're willing to learn and take things as they come, it will be good for you. You've got to be positive about it
Chalobah enjoyed his night at the Jan Breydelstadion, even if it wasn't quite 60,000 at the Stadio San Paolo. "It was very different to that, but it was good to get my opportunity," he explains under the watchful eye of a Napoli club official, keen to rush him off to the team coach.
"I've gone to a different country, trying to learn a language and how they work, but I'm getting used to it. It can be tough moving to a different league but if you're willing to learn and take things as they come, it will be good for you. You've got to be positive about it. I've learned a lot about the game and I just want to keep improving.
"It was strange to play in a game without fans, but it was a good win for us. Hopefully I can play again but I can't really complain too much, the team's doing well and winning every week. I just have to make sure I'm ready."
And with that Chalobah was whisked off by his stern sidekick – to be greeted by cheers outside from around 20 fans who'd been waiting patiently for players from both sides.
It was the biggest cheer that Chalobah had received all night. In fact, on this evening at the Jan Breydelstadion, it was the only cheer he'd received all night.