Can Belgium’s national team save Belgium?


Belgium's captain Vincent Kompany, center, takes part in a training session in Salvador, Brazil, the day before the World Cup round of 16 soccer match against the U.S. (Matt Dunham/AP)

On Tuesday, Belgium defeated the U.S. in a World Cup second round knockout match. The European team's superstar talent and depth was too much for the workman-like Americans. Going into the tournament, the Belgians were much-fancied dark horses and they're now living up to their billing.

The Belgian team, though, is remarkable for another reason: It has managed to unite Belgians. The European nation is notoriously divided between Flemish (or Dutch) speakers in Flanders, a more prosperous region, in the north and French speakers in Walloonia to the south. The national capital, Brussels, is a largely French-speaking cosmopolitan center surrounded by Flemish towns.

Since national elections at the end of May — which saw gains for Flemish nationalists — the country has gone more than a month without a government being formed. The current impasse pales in comparison to one which ended in 2011 after the country had gone 540 days without a government. "It's the most civilized civil war in the history of humanity," says Laurent Dubois, a professor at Duke University and author of Soccer Empire. (Dubois is also a Belgian-American.) But it's still a civil war.

In recent decades, with the intensification of the European project that's anchored in Brussels, Dubois suggests that there has emerged an extensive Belgian bureaucratic state without a real nation. "There's a strong Walloon and Flemish identity," he tells WorldViews. "And now you're seeing a sort of E.U. identity, with many of the younger generation studying in other countries and learning English. But 'Belgian' seemed less important."

Some may point to the uniting power of the Belgian monarchy, but popular support for the king is not necessarily as pronounced as it is elsewhere for other European royals.

Enter the Belgian national team.

"The king as a symbol is not that compelling," says Dubois. "The enthusiasm generated by the [national] team is far greater than anything the monarchy can generate."

This is perhaps the best team Belgium has produced in nearly three decades. What makes this "golden generation" so interesting is its multi-ethnic character. Its captain, the chiseled center back Vincent Kompany, is of Congolese descent. He's surrounded by other sons of immigrants — from Morocco, Mali, Martinique, Kenya and elsewhere.

This is in partly a consequence of sporting strategy, with Belgium following in the footsteps of France, which won the 1998 World Cup with a squad of players drawn from a whole breadth of communities who had immigrated from former French colonies. But that doesn't mean everyone in Belgium celebrates such diversity. When a young Belgian team failed to qualify for the European championships in 2008, far-right politician Filip Dewinter argued that it was the result of players not fighting for "the people." He has called for a separate national team for Flanders — the Flemish Lions.

In France, as Dubois writes eloquently here, far-right xenophobes have also used occasions of sporting failure to lambaste multiculturalism. French striker Karim Benzema, of North African descent, explained the criticism he faced this way: "If I score I’m French ... if I don’t, I’m an Arab.” This year, he has been one of France's best players.

The current Belgian squad — known by the nickname "the Red Devils" — may win a lot of goodwill if it continues its encouraging run. Unlike France, Belgium doesn't have its own far-flung colonial diaspora to tap into. "The team is not really a post-colonial team," says Dubois. "It’s a more cosmopolitan, more European team." Years from now, its players may hope it'll just be remembered as a "Belgian" team.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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