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Official Review by Stephan Hoogerwaard, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Cristal Arena is the stadium of Belgian football club KRC Genk, known generally as Racing Genk. The facility's 24,956 capacity places it as the fourth-largest stadium in Belgium, behind only Cercle Brugge/Club Brugge (29,042), Standard Liege (30,023), and the national King Baudouin Stadium (50,122). The stadium is very new to Belgian standards, with the rebuilding completed in 2002. It attracts an average of 21,000 spectators per match, and Racing Genk has approximately 18,000 season ticket holders. The grass is one of the best of Belgium. There is a sprinkler system and a drainage system to keep it healthy year-round. In the spring of 1999, Racing Genk won their first ever league title.
The name Cristal Arena has been used since 1 June 2007. Before that, it was called the Fenix stadium. On 15 October 2008, it was announced that the planned leisure complex surrounding the stadium was approved by the government. The complex holds room for different activities, including fitness, squash, and bowling, and some sports shops as well. Also included in the plan is an expansion of the stadium to 45,000 seats when possible.
At one goal end on the first tier, there is a large standing area which can accommodate just over 4,200 spectators. When Racing Genk is playing European Cup matches, this stand can be easily converted into a seating area which holds just over 2,000 places. UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) does not allow standing areas when matches under UEFA sanction are played. The entire payment system within the stadium is now digital, also thanks to pressure from UEFA, and an electronic access control system was introduced. Last season (2012-2013), all seats in all stands were replaced by seats with backs. This last adjustment gave the Cristal Arena the "UEFA A-label" that is required to continue playing European Cup matches in their own stadium.
(Note: all exchange rates are as of the date of this posting, October 2013.)
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Outside the ground, there are a lot of vending carts where you can buy hamburgers, fries and German bratwurst, though €5 ($6.75) for a bratwurst with onions and a piece of bread is rather expensive. Inside, the Grand Café underneath the main stand has a large variety of sodas and beers available. The prices are more than reasonable. Maes Pils is the most common beer to be drunk, as Maes is one of the main sponsors of Racing Genk. Inside the ground the food is also very expensive: fries with sauce €4 ($5.50), hamburger €4 ($5.50), bratwurst €5 ($6.75), but drinks are affordable. All kinds of coffees and soups are sold for €2 ($2.75).
The atmosphere during the playoff match between Racing Genk and Club Brugge was good. Before the match, there were a lot of things to do around the stadium. At one point, there were huge insects and dinosaurs walking amongst the spectators. The Racing Genk fans met in front of the stadium for their pre-match analyses. Beer, soft drinks and hamburgers are also here, available in vending carts.
The stadium is located approximately 5.5 km (3.5 mi) from the city centre of Genk and main railway station. It is situated just near the ring road in a quiet residential area where you wouldn't expect a stadium. There are no pubs or restaurants in the surrounding neighbourhood, which is a real minus!
Club Brugge was accompanied by over 1,000 supporters to this playoff match. The Club Brugge fans were brought by buses to the stadium and were kept in a special segregated section behind one stand. From there, they were directed to the away section in the stadium, completely separate from the Racing Genk supporters. This section was surrounded by large glass wall (this is also very common in the Netherlands).
We had seats next to where the away fans were housed, a segregated section in the corner behind one of the goals on the 1st and 2nd tier. They were very vocal this day, but also the supporters of Racing Genk made a good atmosphere, as well. After the 0-2 goal was scored by Club Brugge just before the end of the match, though, some Genk supporters left the ground early.
We drove from the Netherlands to the Cristal Arena in two hours (220 km). The stadium is located on the northern edge of the city of Genk. We took the E314 motorway, and at Exit 31 ("Genk Centrum"), the stadium was signposted. Parking can be found for free in the residential area, and from there, it takes about 10 minutes to walk to the ground.
We paid €20 ($27.10) for our ticket for a seat on the first tier behind one of the goals. This is a rather cheap price for a top match. We visited the match in the playoffs against Belgian giants Club Brugge. which is, in my opinion, usually quite expensive. Tickets for the standing area on the other goal end can be bought for just €17.50 ($23.75). Tickets for Racing Genk games can be bought online or at the ticket office (which is located in the Grand Café under the main stand of the Cristal Arena).
When you buy your tickets online, you will receive a voucher which you need to print at home. At the Cristal Arena, we had to collect them at the ticket office. After identification, we received our tickets. The biggest extra I experienced was there were no queues and we were helped quick and professionally. Racing Genk offers guided stadium tours for €10 ($13.50) per visitor. When you decide to go on this tour, you can visit the VIP facilities, players dressing rooms, press area, and the interactive football museum, GoalMine.
To attend a top match in Belgium was a pretty good experience. It's not to be compared with the big Premier League or Bundesliga matches (where stadiums are two or three times bigger) but as Genk is just a two-hour drive from where we live in the Netherlands, it is a great day out.
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