The artist Rene Magritte was not a patriot. “I despise my own past and that of others,” he wrote of his native Belgium. Magritte’s surrealist paintings were often witty and thought-provoking. He is, together with fictional characters Tintin and Hercule Poirot, and cyclist Eddy Merckx, a famous Belgian.
This tournament, and arguably at the last World Cup as well, Belgium’s list of prominent citizens exploded. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne have become household names in the Premier League and across the globe.
In Brazil, coach Marc Wilmots and his golden generation of Red Devils were still among the dark horses, underwhelming in the group stages, excelling against the United States in the second round and fading against Argentina in the quarter-finals – but at Euro 2016 they were among the favorites, alongside traditional heavyweights Germany and Italy.
After a disastrous Euro 2000, Belgium engineered their own success with a decade-long overhaul of their soccer system, spearheaded by Michel Sablon in his role as technical director. He focused on a 4-3-3 formation, individual player development and institutional change. The revolutionary work resulted in a conveyor belt of top talent. Sablon now works for the FA of Singapore.
In France, the Belgian team was hot, so much so that a new word had come in vogue: ‘Belgitude’, a confluence between Belgium and attitude, that alludes to a nostalgic desire for an ideal and homogeneous country, with the understanding and even admiration for the complexity and absurdity of Belgium’s contradictions. In short, it’s a peculiar form of renewed patriotism.
Strictly speaking, ‘Belgitude’ is not a new term. “The word refers to the construction of a national consciousness in the 20th century,” said Luc Van Doorslaer, an associate professor in translation and journalism studies at the University of Leuven. “For example, in the literature, ‘Belgitude’ was French but with typical, intrinsic Flemish characteristics. It’s questionable, from a historic point of view, to reintroduce the word now.”
It didn’t stop thousands and thousands of vociferous Belgian fans from cheering on their team inside the Stade Pierre-Mauroy and in Lille’s fan zone. Lille turned into the capital of Flanders, just kilometers from the French-Belgian border.
On the way to the stadium a Belgian fan shouted to his Welsh counterparts, ‘Wales, is that even a country?’ It is a somewhat peculiar question coming from Belgian fans. Belgium has long been a deeply divided nation, derailed by multilayered failed constitutional reforms and, for too long, driven by patronage and parochialism. Flemish and Walloons are often not compatible. For 90 minute of football, though, Belgians unite.
“The players symbolize, even with bravura, the perfect, new Belgian citizen,” said Bart Van Reusel, a faculty member of sports sciences at the University of Leuven. “They transcend the old divisions between the Francophones and the Flemish, and thus give shape to a renewed sense of contemporary Belgium. Vincent Kompany [the injured captain] and Stromae [a musician] are a symbol of the new Belgium, small but with an open view of the world and with the necessary self-confidence on stage and on the field. Maybe they help prejudices regarding integration and multiculturalism elimination.”
From the starting XI against Wales, five players ply their trade in the Premier League. Holding midfielder Axel Witsel is a Zenit St Petersburg player, Radja Nainggolan plays for AS Roma and Yannick Carrasco lights up the wing at Atletico Madrid. The Lukaku brothers have ancestral roots in Congo and substitute Marouane Fellaini has Moroccan parents. It’s a group of eclectic players, who play at the very best clubs abroad for big bucks.
Are they the last Belgians? As players with a more cosmopolitan background, the often petty, political discussions leave them quite indifferent. They like Belgium as it is. This youthful Belgium team brings, with its new brand of football, a feel-good factor to the small West-European country.
Yet football doesn't change the behavior of the electorate. The N-VA, on the far-right of the political spectrum, remains Belgium’s largest political party. Led by frontman and de facto prime minister, Bart De Wever, the party advocates ‘confederalism’, a process that entails the slow dissolution of Belgium.
The Belgian national team has become a potent symbol in the political debate between pro-Belgian fractions and Flemish-nationalists, but it creates only ’90-minute patriots’, and therefore its role is limited. “The Red Devils are a hype and that is excellent for a collective party and a Belgian football identity,” said Van Reusel. “But this populistic football nationalism is temporary and superficial. It won’t solve Belgium’s problems.”
Michel D’Hooghe, the former chairman of the Belgian Football Association and a longstanding member of the FIFA Executive Committee, echoed Van Reusel’s observations. “The Red Devils unite all Belgians in a social and sportive sense, but much less so in political sense,” said D’Hooghe.
In France, Belgium were supposed to come off age. For a long time, the Belgian press labeled this generation of players ‘The Vitton Generation’ after the failure to qualify for the 2010 World and Euro 2012 and the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup. Yesterday they succumbed to the cunning Welsh, their bogey team, resulting in another quarter-final exit for the much-heralded Belgians. Their talent remains undisputed, but they seem unable to deliver.
Come the 2018 World Cup, Belgium, backed up by a Belgitude atmosphere, will have another chance at footballing glory