This is the eighth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
The only true Belgian, goes a long-running joke, is the king of the country. Riven by tensions between its French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish, and with the identity of Brussels largely defined by its being the capital of Europe, rather than Belgium, the country’s existence as a unified nation often seems tenuous at best. But in the last decade, another national institution has come to symbolize what it means—or, at least, might mean—to be Belgian: the national soccer team, known as the Red Devils. Packed with star players well-known from their professional careers in the English Premier League (considered the world’s best), the national squad is also notably for its diversity, with many players from immigrant backgrounds. In 2014, the Belgian pop star Stromae wrote an anthem for the Red Devils and released a playful video with the coach and players. Heading into this year’s World Cup, the team embodies the contradictions, and possibilities, of an uncertain nation.
I was born in Belgium in 1971, but moved to the US when still a baby. Long ago, I adopted the French team as my own. I was inspired by its rousing performance in winning the 1998 World Cup, came to love star players like Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, and was taken by the ways in which the diverse team made France’s colonial past visible and offered a different way of imagining the future of the country. I still root for France, but this summer I’ll be rooting for Belgium, too, sporting its bright red jersey and hoping the team will fulfill its amazing potential.
While I was growing up, Belgium was an unexceptional team—its status encapsulated in a famous photograph of Diego Maradona during the 1982 World Cup that showed six panicked Belgian players about to be outsmarted by a lone Argentinian one. The Belgians were always outshone and outplayed by their Low Country neighbors, the Dutch.
Today, Belgium is ranked third in the world in the FIFA rankings, below Germany and Brazil, but above France and Holland. Belgium qualified for the 2014 tournament without losing a single game, made it to the quarter-finals (defeating the US along the way), and is considered one of the top teams competing in Russia.
How did this happen? Part of the answer has to do with recent changes in the way the game is organized and coached in Belgium. In 2002, the Belgian Football Association hired a new technical director named Michel Sablon, who developed a standardized national training program focused on teaching kids excellent technique and ball control in tight spaces. The new approach paid off, and within a decade a new group of Belgian players was being hailed as a “golden generation.” The roster of this year’s World Cup team now includes players such as Kevin de Bruyne and Vincent Kompany of Manchester City, Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini of Manchester United, and Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi, and Thibaut Courtois of Chelsea.
These top players go abroad for their club careers because the domestic teams can’t afford them. The professional teams in England and Spain are global brands, watched all over the world, and make huge profits from selling the television rights to their games. Few outside Belgium watch its teams, which are therefore cash-strapped.
Until the 1990s, most European countries had rules limiting how many foreign players could be on a given professional team, which constrained the movement of players within the continent. But in 1995, a Belgian player named Jean-Marc Bosman argued successfully that these rules violated the principles of the European Union. Since then, the trading of players across Europe has boomed, resulting in enormous increases in the transfer fees paid between teams. Belgian teams have developed a business model focused on developing young players and then selling them abroad. A soccer club in the tiny Belgian town of Genk produced De Bruyne and Courtois, along with another star player, Christian Benteke, and the players’ hugely expensive transfers to English clubs paid for major expansion of the Genk club’s facilities and programs.
Benteke was born in Kinshasa, in what was then Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo); his parents fled the Mobutu regime and settled in Belgium when he was a young boy. They were part of several generations of migrants from Congo who made Belgium their home. Though Benteke was ultimately not chosen for this year’s squad, there are five players on the team who have family roots in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was once a Belgian colony notorious for the brutality of its exploitation. Vincent Kompany’s family name derives from his ancestors’ labor in a Belgian company mine; in 1968, his father, then a student activist struggling against the Mobutu dictatorship, migrated to Belgium. Lukaku is the son of a professional soccer player who played for the national team of Zaïre in the 1990s. Michy Batshuayi, the brilliant striker who will join Lukaku in the Belgian attack this summer, also has a Congolese background.
For Belgium—as with France, where sixteen of the twenty-three players in the World Cup squad this year are of African or Caribbean descent—colonial histories become visible on the pitch. So do broader histories of immigration. The father of the tough Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mousa Dembélé is from Mali. Fellaini’s parents are Moroccan immigrants, as are those of Nacer Chadli, who played on the Moroccan national team before opting to play for Belgium. Yannick Carrasco’s parents are from Portugal and Spain. Adnan Januzaj was at one point being eyed by the teams of Kosovo and Albania, either of which he could have played for because of his parent’s backgrounds.
These players are part of the team because Sablon’s national training model tapped into a broader social project. In the late 1980s, when immigration was on the rise, the anthropologist Johan Leman was asked to develop policies for the social “integration” of migrants. He suggested using soccer as a tool, urging municipalities to build small, cement soccer pitches in urban neighborhoods. Today’s diverse team is a result of the confluence between this local infrastructure and the broader national training system. Sablon and others celebrate this as a major strength, declaring that the technical flair gained from the “street soccer” of these migrant communities has enlivened and improved Belgian soccer as a whole.
All this was achieved, remarkably, in the midst of a fragmented society run by a largely dysfunctional political system. For the past several decades, the country has been in the midst of a churning, low-grade ethno-nationalist conflict between the Walloons, who speak French, and the Flemish, who speak Dutch. The largest political party in the country advocates its break-up. Writer Sam Knight likens Belgium to “a household where the parents have separated but decided to remain in the same home.” It might seem a “sensible arrangement,” but it leaves the country suffused with “an unseen tracery of sadness.”
Many immigrants are much less interested in the Flemish-Walloon feud than in access to education and health care. And younger Belgians in general are more oriented toward a European identity, which has also made the capital Brussels notably cosmopolitan. The national team condenses aspects of this Belgium, one in which cultural heterogeneity becomes a strength. National team managers of earlier generations made sure to have a balance of Walloon and Flemish players on the squad. Fans of today’s more diverse team find workarounds to the basic French-Flemish linguistic problem by chanting in English or just humming the tune of Verdi’s “Triumphal March.” The Belgium it embodies is youthful and global; at its best, it is promising, cohesive, and joyous. “It’s as if,” writes Knight, “the kids growing up in their parent’s sad and divided house decided to be a family, after all.”
In a recent article at The Player’s Tribune, Romelu Lukaku described growing up in deep poverty in Antwerp, and his determination as a child to use soccer to help his family. There were hurdles: when he was eleven, playing for a local youth team, a parent tried to prevent him from going on the pitch and demanded to see his ID. Now, he notes, everyone knows his name. Leading Belgium to a victory over Panama this week, he cemented his record as the all-time greatest goal-scorer in Belgian history. “I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch,” he explained, “I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighborhood we’re in. I’m Belgian. We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right?”