Until now, perhaps the best-known moment in Belgium’s World Cup history was a photograph of Diego Maradona. Taken at the 1982 tournament in Spain, it shows the greatest player of the modern era with the ball delicately poised at his feet, confronting six bewildered-looking Belgians trying to stop him. It is a picture that has come to symbolize an entire footballing worldview: Latin flair vs. European stolidity, the lone genius vs. the unwieldy rabble, the artist vs. the artisans. But this image is unfair. Belgium actually won the match, 1-0, and finished ahead of Argentina in their group. These seemingly clueless players stopped Maradona at his own game.
They belonged to what came to be known as the golden generation of Belgian footballers. As a group they enjoyed a hugely successful decade, qualifying for all the major tournaments and achieving their country’s best ever result by coming fourth in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico (albeit in a tournament won by Argentina, after Maradona, getting his revenge, had singlehandedly dismantled Belgium in the semi-finals). Now, following a quiet period, Belgium has another golden generation to get excited about, one capable of matching or even bettering the feats of its predecessors. But this version looks very different from the first, which was literally golden. Gone are the blond perms and palely uniform skin tones. The present Belgian team is one of the most diverse in the whole tournament. It is multi-ethnic as well as multi-talented. And in Vincent Kompany and Eden Hazard, Belgium possesses two of the superstars of the moment: one black, one white.
Yet the irony is that as Belgian football has become much more diverse in the period between its two golden generations, Belgian society has grown far more divided. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, fuelled by far-right nationalists who have been stoking a backlash against European integration. More traditional Belgian divisions, between the Dutch-speaking Flemish population and the French-speaking Walloons, have also intensified. For an 18-month period from 2010 to 2011, these entrenched rivalries prevented Belgium from having any government at all. A complex federal constitution, reinforced by a multi-party system of proportional representation, has only made matters worse. While the Belgian football team has been going from strength to strength, the country itself has started to look ungovernable.
This is not just a Belgian story. Europe’s football as a whole has been moving in one direction while its politics has been moving in another. Nationalism and separatism are on the rise everywhere, from Catalonia to Crimea. The free movement of peoples on which the entire European project depends has run up against the enormous resentment it provokes among local populations who see their jobs and livelihoods put at risk. Borders are hardening across the continent. Yet Europe’s national football teams reflect the underlying reality of blurred boundaries and fuzzy national identities. Polish-born players now appear for the German national team, as do Turkish immigrants. Former Serbs turn out for Switzerland. Naturalized Brazilians play for Portugal. Adnan Januzaj, the 19-year-old Manchester United prodigy, has only recently declared his intention of playing for Belgium, despite having been born in Brussels. Thanks to his complex family history he was also being courted by Albania, Turkey, Croatia, Serbia and even England, who tried to nab him on residency grounds. All would have been delighted to see him switch allegiance. Footballing nationalism, in contrast to the political version, is becoming more pragmatic all the time.
It is sometimes said that the monarchy and the football team are the only things that really unite Belgians. For this reason football occasionally sufferes from inflated expectations that it will help break through the political impasse (the king can’t do it on his own). If Belgium wins this World Cup, won’t Belgians forget their political differences? Unfortunately, no. France’s triumph in the 1998 tournament stands as a cautionary example of what happens if you expect too much. France won that tournament with another wonderfully diverse team. As French citizens of every shade and background celebrated together, there was excited talk about the dawn of a new age of multicultural tolerance. It did not happen. Nationalist politicians were soon complaining that many members of the winning side were not really French, like the Ghanaian-born Marcel Desailly. French politics in the period since has become more strident and intolerant. The National Front has continued its relentless rise.
Compared to that French team and to many other recent European ones, the current Belgian side is fairly homogenous. Almost all its members were born inside the country. What they also have in common is that few of them still play there. Belgium’s current crop of star players has been ruthlessly culled by big overseas clubs. Many now play in the English Premier League, including Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) and Eden Hazard (Chelsea), along with Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United) and Simon Mignolet (Liverpool). This is another feature of the European scene: the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer domestic leagues, which hoover up all the available talent. When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, the glamour of Belgian football was associated with its club sides, like Anderlecht and Standard Liege, who on their day could compete with Europe’s best. Now, starved of the best Belgian players, they don’t stand a chance. As Belgian football has gotten stronger, its club sides have gotten weaker.
Again, this story lies on top of a messier political one. In Europe today power and wealth are concentrated in the north, above all in Germany. But in club football terms, the southern and western fringes are still calling the shots: England, Italy and Spain, despite their wider economic weaknesses, are the powerhouses. Belgium’s economic situation places it closer to the European core allied to Germany. But as a footballing nation it is part of the vulnerable south, prey to being picked on by the big boys. So this is something else about football that Belgians can unite around: their shared sense that they are victims, since homegrown talent gets transplanted abroad before it can flourish domestically.
It all adds to the romance of the current national side: a group of lads born in Belgium within a few years of each other and then scattered overseas, now brought together again for a shot at glory. Romance is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills. No matter how well they do in Brazil, the familiar problems of money and politics will continue to divide Belgium and its football team. Their captain Vincent Kompany is a hugely impressive figure: a towering player and an intelligent and politically astute man. “Belgium belongs to everyone,” he tweeted recently. Some have him pegged as a future national leader. It would be wonderful to see him lift the World Cup next month. That image is not beyond the bounds of footballing possibility. Still, it would only be a story about football. There is always a hope that sport can transcend hard political realities. But it usually ends up being swamped by them.