For long, Belgium had struggled to integrate the ethnic groups that form their demographic. Their football team has made an example by working past that.
From the 13th of June 2010 to 6th December 2011, the country of Belgium had no functioning government – setting a world record of going 589 days without one. There were as many as 11 parties elected to the Chamber of Representatives, with none getting more than 20% of the seats. This is not something you see every day. But then again, Belgium is not a country like every other.
It is a complex nation. In any given democratic country, there are people with different opinions, different cultures, different religions, etc. which shape how they think politically and in turn, how they feel towards their fellow countrymen. Take the example of India – over a billion people, with over fifty languages and more than five religions amongst many other things. And yet, a party was voted in, and with majority vote during the last elections despite the level of diversity that no other country in the world has.
For Belgium, the problems are more deep rooted. Walloons (of Celtic origin), and Flemings (of Germanic origin), came together to form the country around two centuries ago. King Leopold was named the first King, and to this day, Belgium is still a monarchy albeit with a functioning government, and Christianity is the major religion.
Two completely different groups of people coming together for a common cause – at that time, independence from the United Kingdom of Netherlands. Not a bad idea on paper as the results were achieved, but 200 years later and there is no shortage of problems between two groups that are divided by their culture. The tensions started long back, primarily due to French being originally instituted as the only official language of the state, and then a series of movements which aimed at reversing that decision took place; which divided the already on-edge communities even more. Disagreements remain to this day, as each community wants its culture to be represented at the government, and otherwise. Understandably so, but that leads to conflicts and a very, very complex governance system that aims to please everyone.
Today, over 11 million Belgians are divided into two major groups, that get along together as well as Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra. In a country so divided then, what are the uniting factors?
“Me, I play with my Belgian colleagues. I don’t play with my Flemish colleagues.” said the French speaking footballer Eden Hazard not a long time ago.
Indeed, it is on very rare occasions that “Belgians” unite as one. The Belgium national football team is a major reason for that.
The first time
It was in 1920 that the Belgian football team won a Gold Medal in the Olympics. At that time, Dutch was yet not completely on par with French in the government, even though it was officially a national language. The country had yet to give it as much importance as it gave to French, and that irked the Flemish community. It was also just around that time that the Flemish People’s Party was formed.
However, football was not as big back then. There were other problems facing the country, such as the aftermath of the First World War wherein the nation acquired German-speaking provinces in the east due to the Treaty of Versailles.
It was in 1980 that German became an officially recognized language to be used in the government, and Brussels had by this point been firmly established as the only bilingual city (as well as the third major region of the country), and the capital of the nation. It is during this time that the first Golden Generation of Belgian football players came into the fray. Convenient timing, and much needed for two sets of people who normally are as stable with each other as Diego Maradona in the stands when he sees Argentina play.
Before Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku, there were Jean-Marie Pfaff, Eric Gerets and Jan Ceulemans amongst others who made up a talented 1980’s squad. It was during this time that the nation really got caught up with the beautiful game; a combination of talent and results on the field, and stability in the country off it led to a boom in interest that perhaps really unified the nation for the first time since it was established. The 1970’s and Paul Van Himst, the best Belgian footballer of the 20th century, did garner some interest, but it was again often muddled by disruptions in the country itself.
Mexico 1986 was the defining moment for the national team. There was interest, there was a talented squad; but most importantly, there was a nation which for a brief moment of time, had come to unite as not Flemish or Walloons or German speakers, but rather as Belgians. Several of such citizens were present in Mexico for the World Cup, awaiting a promising campaign.
During normal circumstances, you can almost imagine a French speaking citizen not getting his ball back because he kicked it in the compound of a Dutch speaking citizen – but during this time, the latter probably came out and they played a game together in their nation’s kit. All eyes were on the players during that time.
It was a memorable World Cup. Belgium finished 3rd in their group, but the rules at the time meant that they qualified for the next round as one of the best placed third teams in that tournament. Their performances in the group stages were sluggish, disjointed – not much unlike the country’s government in 2010.
A talented USSR team were the ones Belgian beat in the first knockout round, a game that made the team and the fans believe that greater things might lie ahead. An equaliser fifteen minutes before normal time changed it all – Ceulemans beat the offside trap and scored the second goal for his team that is arguably one of Belgian football’s best moments. USSR were left depleted in extra time, shipping in two more and losing the game comprehensively in the end.
The importance of that Ceulemans goal cannot be understated. Belgium had been vastly unspectacular in the tournament, but post his goal, the team’s mood changed. A rush of adrenaline combined with the thirst to venture into ground unknown lifted the Belgian squad, and Russia felt the wrath in extra time. In the quarter finals, it was an interesting encounter between Spain and Belgium, and at the end of a close affair, the Belgians kept their nerves and advanced on penalties.
Of course, 1986 is not remembered mainly for Belgian heroics, rather the genius that was Maradona. In the semi final, the diminutive Argentine scored a brace against the Red Devils which ended their campaign. There was no shame there, though. They had simply lost to a team touched by genius; there was no one in the world stopping Maradona’s Argentina in that tournament.
The campaign itself was not as brilliant to watch as other teams who came up just short and similarly inspired their nations- Croatia in 1998 for instance, when they made their World Cup debut. It was about the game giving much more to the people than merely the lows of defeat or the highs of victory.
Every nation has a different narrative attached to it going into the World Cup. Panama commentators before the kick off in their first World Cup game this year wept with joy when they heard their country’s national anthem being played at the biggest stage. The losses that the team consequently faced meant little.
The World Cup is known for its emotions; there is nothing quite like the feeling of your nation succeeding. For Panama, it was the qualification to the World Cup that mattered. For Belgium back in 1986, poor results by a gifted squad would have discouraged people back home; people who barely have any other common ground to come together for. The importance of that campaign was immense in building interest for a sport that would only get bigger, and bring the people together.
The year following this campaign, the government fell. A coincidence of course, but it is interesting to note how a year after uniting so well for the first time in ages, the country had a major overhaul. Almost as if football was but a welcome distraction from the ever present turmoil in the country.
A team that plays together, inspires together
“Politics divides people. As coach of Belgium, I can unite them.”
Marc Wilmots’ golden generation in 2014 generated somewhat of a mixed reaction to their World Cup campaign. They were knocked out by Argentina in the quarter finals, losing to the first team they had faced that year who posed a credible threat to their talent.
Regardless, the supporters themselves thought of a quarter final appearance as a definite success. Of course, losing to Lionel Messi is much better than not qualifying to be on a ground with the same man. This was the first major tournament the new Golden Generation had played together, and there was hope that the players would only get better – the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne are living testament to that belief becoming reality.
Today, it is hard to argue that there is any squad that betters the depth and talent that the Belgium team possesses. Reaching their peak in 2015 when they were first in the FIFA rankings (a flawed system, but a testament to their ability nevertheless), there are heightened expectations from this team now. An explosive attack, a fluid midfield, a defence that is solid if not elite. Rightly managed, Belgium can go toe to toe with any of the usual heavyweights that aim to win the trophy every four years.
2014 was the first time that the Red Devils had qualified for the World Cup since 2002, and it saw the audience numbers reach an all time high in the country. The nation was painted in the tri colours of red, yellow and black as the country came together again after a long break. The results did not exactly match the hype, but at least the team was in better shape now than it had been for over a decade. The fans have now patiently waited four years for the chance to shine again.
Central defender Nicolas Lombaerts told The Guardian before their campaign in 2014: “We still don’t have a government yet. We don’t care. We will keep the country united.”
The task that the Belgian government faces is immense – to keep two massive communities equally happy all the time. To do the same, they evolve, and they adapt. A unitary government becoming a federal constitutional monarchy, and the establishment of Brussels are two examples of the nation changing for its own betterment. Nowadays in Belgium, there is no national newspaper, no national radio channel. The communities are all solely responsible for schooling, family affairs etc in their own region. All of this had to be done for the stability of the country itself.
Eden Hazard is from a Walloon area. Kevin De Bruyne was born in the East Flanders district. Footballers in this team go beyond the traditional two regions also – Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany is fluent in both Dutch and French, and had a Congolese father. The current squad is a mixture of individuals who all come from different regions and have mixed origins, and yet, they gel well. They have adapted, they have learnt to put whatever differences they may have aside for the welfare of the nation.
Roberto Martinez’s appointment as the Belgium coach raised some eyebrows – but so far this World Cup, the Belgians have a perfect winning record and head into the knockout rounds with a head full of steam, and a group winning team brimming with confidence. The play has been fluid for the most part, with the players looking assured and ready for a fight. This Belgian team has more players plying their trade in top European teams than any other squad in the nation’s history, with the major crux of the team operating in the English Premier League.
The England national team in 2006 was also a golden generation of players – united by the nation, but a division on the club level combined with some ridiculously bad management saw the team fail miserably in every major tournament. In Belgium’s case, the golden generation is divided by both regions and clubs – yet when Manchester City’s De Bruyne releases a delicious pass to Manchester United’s Lukaku who finishes past a helpless goalkeeper, Chelsea’s Hazard’s eyes light up in delight as the captain runs over to celebrate with his teammates. Regions forgotten, origins forgotten. Red, yellow and black matters more than the club colours.
Perhaps when both the Dutch and the French speaking citizens of Belgium see this spirit, they sense something that is out of the ordinary. Of course, Belgium is not solely defined by the discord between its two biggest regions – as a nation itself, it ranks pretty high on the Human Development Index and is a brilliant country to visit, alongside being economically developed. But the massive difference in culture does often cast a looming shadow over the Walloons and Flemish, who only see eye to eye when it comes to focusing their eyes on a major football tournament going on on the television.
It would seem that perhaps the Belgium team is on the right path. In doing what they do, Martinez’s men bring happiness back home. The people would hope that this time around, their heroes bring something else back home – a shining Golden Trophy, for example. Unity and a prize to show for it; what more could you want from your heroes?