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Can soccer unite the Belgians?

- June 16, 2014

The Belgium national football team, prior to their World Cup qualifier against Serbia, on June 7, 2013. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)
We continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (12345,  6, 7, and 8). Tomorrow Belgium will open its much anticipated 2014 World Cup campaign. Below Cas Mudde discusses the national soccer team as one of the few things that brings together Belgians. Earlier in our series, Tony Ross told the fascinating tale of soccer and national identity in Algeria, Belgium’s opponent in tomorrow’s game.
– Erik Voeten
Football fans around the world have eagerly counted the days till last Thursday, when Brazil and Croatia finally kicked off the 2014 World Cup (WC), but in few countries will the excitement and expectations have been as high as in Belgium. A whole generation of Belgian football fans will see their “Red Devils” (as the national team is called) compete for the first time in a World Cup tournament. Others, who still remember the so-called Golden Generation, which qualified for every consecutive WC between 1982 and 2002 and came fourth in the 1986 WC in Mexico, are hoping to see a new Golden Generation, which can finally get Belgium out of the shadow of its main rivals, France and the Netherlands, which played the WC final in 2006 and 2010, respectively (both lost, to the delight of most Belgians).
As in so many countries the WC is not only about football in Belgium, it is also very much about politics. But whereas football is an escape out of the dire realities of the economic crisis in nations like Greece, the national football team is, in many ways, the nation in Belgium. Although article 33 of the Belgian Constitution states “All powers emanate from the Nation,” the Belgian nation has always been a complicated construction. Belgium is a deeply divided country, with (simply speaking) a Dutch speaking Flemish majority in the north, a French speaking Walloon minority in the south, and the officially bilingual capital of Brussels, which has a large population of immigrants and Eurocrats who speak neither Dutch nor French as their first language.
There are few things all Belgians share, as the private and public media are separated by language (most Belgians are not bilingual) and the royal family lacks the popularity of its (biological) relatives in Britain. Consequently Belgicists (pro-Belgians) have always looked to the Red Devils to boost the Belgian spirit of its compatriots. This is not without reason, as Belgians consistently rank among the least patriotic in (Western) Europe (see, for example, Eurobarometer). These Belgicists could find some solace in recent research that shows that good results of a national team in the 2000 UEFA European Championship (EC) boosted, at least temporarily, the national pride in that country.
And the qualification couldn’t have come at a more important time. Belgium seems more divided than ever. Last month, for the first time in history, a Flemish nationalist party (N-VA) became the largest party in the country. This doesn’t bode well for the federal coalition formation, given that the previous one, which didn’t even include the N-VA, lasted a record-breaking 589 days. And how much the Belgian people need to (re)gain trust in their fellow citizens was made painfully clear in a beautiful example of Belgian surrealism in December 2006, when the French-speaking state television RTBF aired a Orson Welles-like staged news report claiming that the Flemish had declared independence and the royal family had fled the country, which led to thousands of distressed phone calls to the station and an impromptu demonstration against Flemish separatism in Brussels.
For the same reasons that the Red Devils have always been a source of national hope for Belgicists, they have been the object of scorn by radical Flemish nationalists. One of the foremost critics is Filip Dewinter, one of the leaders of the far right party Flemish Interest (VB). For example, he explained the missed qualification for the 2008 EC by arguing that “Red Devils Don’t Fight for Their Country, Nation, People (Volk) or Colors.” Flemish nationalists have also blamed the poor results on the alleged ethnic politics of the national football elite, who force the national coach to select as many French-speaking as Dutch-speaking players, irrespective whether they are the best. Their solution is simple: split the team into a Flemish and a Walloon national team! In fact, in 2007 Dewinter started a petition to have “Flemish Lions instead of Red Devils.”
With the rise of the new Golden Generation of Red Devils, the core of which came fourth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Flemish nationalist position has become more marginalized. Importantly, the media on both sides of the language-divide now primarily emphasizes the unity of Belgium in their coverage of the Red Devils 2010-2011. This is in contrast with much of the media coverage of domestic news, or previous coverage of the Red Devils, which is mainly framed in terms of ‘community conflicts’ (communautaire conflicten).
Whereas the original Golden Generation highlighted the successful collaboration between Flemings and Walloons, the new Golden Generation ads a new group to that mix: ‘immigrants’ or, more accurately, native Belgians with an immigration background. While ‘immigrants’ already played a role in the original Golden Generation – most notably the brilliant, if volatile, creative midfield Enzo Scifo, son of Italian immigrants, who played in four World Cups – they form the backbone of the new Golden Generation. Captain of the team is Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), son of a Congolese father and a Belgian mother, perfectly bilingual, and a passionate advocate of Belgium. For example, after the 2-0 win in the qualifier against Scotland he tweeted “Belgium belongs to everyone, but tonight primarily to us.” This was a reference to N-VA leader Bart De Wever, who on the night of his election as mayor of Antwerp had stated “Antwerp is for everybody, but this evening, it is for us”.
Among the other stars of the multicultural Belgian team are Moussa Dembélé (Tottenham Hotspur), son of a Malian father and Belgian mother, Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), who has Moroccan parents, and Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), whose father played for the national team of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). They are coached by Marc Wilmots, who speaks all three official Belgian languages fluently (Dutch, German and French), and has been a senator for the Reform Movement (MR), a liberal and strongly Belgicist political party in the French speaking part of Belgium.
As said, the expectations for the new Golden Generation are “sky high,” although mostly in social and political terms. For example, some prominent Flemish Belgicists wanted to use the Red Devils during the election campaign to counter the success of the N-VA. Other Belgians believe that the multicultural Red Devils can make Belgians (more) tolerant toward immigrants and minorities. No easy feat, given that a 2011 Ipsos study of 23 countries worldwide found Belgians to be the least tolerant towards immigrants. In contrast, the football expectations seem much more realistic. While some international commentators consider the Red Devils a dark horse in the 2014 WC, just half of the Belgian population expects them to reach (at least) the quarter-finals – not overly ambitious given that they are in a group with Algeria, Russia and South Korea. A very modest 11 percent think they’ll make the semi-finals, and just three percent the final (the majority of those, however, think they’ll win the final).
Cas Mudde is an assistant professor in the School for Public and International Policy at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” and editor of Political Extremism. He can be followed on Twitter @casmudde