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My Brussels: Alexandre de Meeter on working for a unique Brussels football club

22:22 20/06/2020

A brief chat in a lift at college landed Alexandre de Meeter a dream placement with the Belgian men’s football team and set him off on a career devoted to sports communication. The Uccle resident is now a consultant for Royal Union Saint-Gilloise, the city’s 120-year-old football club, which has its sights set on the top flight of Belgian football under the new ownership of Brighton & Hove Albion chairman Tony Bloom. “Brussels is a sport city,” De Meeter tells The Bulletin, when we meet at the club’s historic grounds in Forest. But he warns: “There are so many young people with enormous sporting potential who cannot 100% fulfil it.”

How did you get into the world of sport?

I didn’t grow up in a very sporty family, but my grandfather loved football. I remember watching the 1994 World Cup with him. It was a scorching hot day and Belgium were playing Germany. I loved it and, even though Belgium lost, that was where it all began. It became a tradition right up until his death: whenever there was a big match, we’d watch it together. Football has always been a passion – not just the game but everything that surrounds it: the transfers, the players, the kits. One day my teacher at Erasmus Hogeschool stopped me in the lift and asked if I liked football. She gave me the business card of Filip Van Doorslaer at the Belgian Football Federation.

They had never had a communications intern before, and in 2012 I started a 12-week placement there. It was just when the Red Devils were starting to build up some real hype. They started producing content marketing, videos, preparing for the 2014 World Cup; it was a real learning curve for me. Before then they’d play friendlies and the stadium would be only half full. I saw them play Holland on 15 August 2012, when Belgium won 4-2, and the stadium was full. That was when it became clear things were changing, both on and off the pitch, that it was going to be a success story. I was really proud to have been a part of it.

When I finished my sports management degree at VUB I joined Basic-Fit Brussels basketball club. They’d just reached Division One and needed someone to work in communication and sponsoring. It suited me: it was Bruxellois, they needed someone bilingual, with an understanding of the field. It was a case of starting from scratch, creating the social channels, creating a business model.

What brought you to Union Saint-Gilloise?

A journalist I know at Bruzz, Filip Van Der Elst, had met then-Union president Jürgen Baatzsch and he called me and said: “Alex, you have to call Jürgen, they absolutely need someone who can shake up their communication. He knows what you did at Basic-Fit Brussels and he wants you to do the same at Union – call him.” The budget wasn’t enormous. I combined it with BasicFit Brussels for a year, stabilising the communication and creating a few projects.

What do you think makes this football club special?

Union is a historic product. It’s still the third most successful club in Belgium in terms of trophies. Then there’s the stadium, which is unique. Everyone who comes and stands in front of the stadium says it’s a unique moment – you have the impression of arriving at [Arsenal’s former stadium] Highbury.

And there are the supporters who have always followed us, from the lower divisions up. If they see the players giving it their all, they give their all themselves. Even when the side loses, the supporters give their encouragement. There’s a really positive atmosphere in the stadium and that’s our USP. With its history, its atmosphere, its supporters, its position as the club for the capital – that’s a mix that creates this unique product. You can’t compare it with any other club.

I think Union represents two sides of Brussels: the historic side, accessible, friendly and bon-vivant, but also the modern aspect of Brussels, very multilingual, with a lot of Europeans.

You hear lots of different languages. There’s a Spanish-language section of fans, I’ve seen Norwegians, there were Croatians who had travelled from Zagreb to Brussels in a minibus to come and see a Union match. Yesterday we had an Irish guy who came to buy four tickets for the next match. He came after the ticket office had closed, but we’re a flexible bunch. He said he would come with his children, because he’d heard it was a nice thing to do.

Where do you seek inspiration?

It’s my job to keep an eye on what’s happening abroad, to discover what the new trends will be. The German business model, structure and communication is magnificent. There are a lot of good Bundesliga football clubs, then there’s the NBA in the States which remains an enormous machine. It’s always been an inspiration to see what they do there. A club is a ‘love brand’. If it’s positive, everything is great, but when the results are less good, you’re soon told.

What professional challenges do you face?

The first goal is to get out of the Proximus league [Belgium’s second division]. Preferably up, not down. The ambition is absolutely to reach the Pro League. What’s personally motivating is it’s an area that changes constantly. Social media, different ways of speaking to fans are being constantly reinvented. It’s a personal satisfaction to see the club evolve, and to develop with it is a great source of pride.

Is Brussels doing enough to develop and encourage sport?

Politicians need to realise that Brussels is a sport city and it must remain so. Look at the current Red Devils: several of them started playing football in the street, they kicked a ball around with friends in little playgrounds. That’s where sport begins. If you offer more, and better, sports infrastructure, that can only help society. For me, it’s lacking at the moment. Here at Union we donated some nets to the local park because there were goalposts without nets. They are plain, there’s nothing to say that Union donated them, but we did it, and it’s not expensive.

There are so many young people with enormous sporting potential who cannot 100% fulfil it. All it takes is a bit of political will. Brussels is an international city except on a sporting level. For Euro 2004, Portugal built huge new stadiums, which are still among the best in Europe today. We were meant to be a host city for Euro 2020. Instead, I’ll need to go to London to see the semi-finals. I’d rather it was here in Brussels, and it’s a shame the city missed this chance. It’s about positioning Brussels on the international stage. Brussels should be capable of hosting a Europa League final. Ghent has a beautiful stadium, Leuven has a lovely stadium. Brussels remains a black mark. We urgently need to see this infrastructure develop. There are so many possibilities to host big events.

Alexandre’s best of Brussels

Abbaye de la Cambre
I come here to relax. It’s surprisingly quiet, even though you’re close to Avenue Louise with its traffic. A bit further there are the Ixelles ponds, which is a great place to chill, especially in the summer.

Uccle
I live in Uccle. It’s quiet, it’s green, I love this atmosphere and the impression that you’re not living in a capital city, but you are nonetheless. I run here, I play tennis. For anything sport, Uccle is ideal.

Stade des Trois Tilleuls
This is another great place for sport. It’s a listed monument, the second biggest stadium in Belgium, but it’s only used by Racing Boitsfort and for athletics. It’s a place where you can witness real grass-roots football. You feel something special about the place.

Sablon
I like eating out in the Sablon and the adjoining streets. Le Troisième Acte (Rue Charles Hanssens) is a favourite. Elsewhere, Place Saint-Boniface keeps getting better if you’re looking to enjoy a drink and a meal.

Photo: Koenraad Merens. This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn/winter 2019-20

Written by Paul McNally