You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Making of Belgium's Golden Generation, and Imported Versus Cultivated Talent

It has been noted: maybe the US needs more military bases in Spain and Brazil

Michael Steele/Getty Images Sport

At its best, the World Cup produces games that are works of art, narratives that can rival our greatest plays and novels for what they tell us about ourselves and our world. Opinions will differ, of course, about any work of art, and our and interpretation always depends on what we carry with us. I’m certainly biased in this case: I am Belgian-American, and deeply invested in the stories both these teams brought to the pitch. Though I’m a bit of specialist in ambivalent fandom, yesterday’s brought my level of fragmentation to new levels. But I survived, and am grateful for what last night offered us.

What made the match great was not just the intense drama of its plot, but also the way that, condensed within it, were layers of historical experience: stories of individual migration and stories of institutions, and the results of long-term projects for seeking success in the ever-unpredictable terrain of the World Cup.

Of the five goals scored during the tournament by the U.S., three came from the team’s contingent of German players. These five—John Brooks, Jermaine Jones, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, and Julian Green—share strikingly parallel family stories. All five are the sons of African-American servicemen and German mothers, and four of them were born in Germany (Green was born in Florida but moved to Germany when he was 2). They grew up in Germany and, crucially, learned to play in the excellent football academies that have made that country the global football power that it is. 

The crucial presence of these players—along with other dual nationals—on a team curated by a German coach makes the U.S. team similar to other national teams that it is not usually compared to: those of Algeria, Bosnia, and Palestine. Like the U.S., these teams have depended on recruiting from their diasporas in order to improve the quality of their teams. Algeria is the most extreme case—16 of its 23 players were French born, raised and trained. Children of Algerian parents and eligible for dual citizenship, these players—many of whom have represented France on youth international teams—have chosen to play for a country in which they have never lived, but are tied to by ancestry. The Bosnian story is a different one: It is made up of children mostly born in the region but who grew up as refugees, “splattered around the globe” as one writer put it. Though less well-known, there is also the example of the 2006 Palestine team, which brought together local players with Argentine, Chilean, and U.S. players of Palestinian descent—a story documented in the film Goal Dreams.

The U.S. diaspora represented on the team, of course, has an extremely different history. They are not refugees from a military conflict, or children of migrants who fled conflict or sought labor opportunities elsewhere, but instead part of the massive and unequalled U.S. military presence abroad. A humorous insight about this came early on via Twitter from Maxi Rodriguez, who after the goal by John Brooks noted: “We should put a few military bases in Spain and Brazil so that we can have some kids to add to the national pool for the next generation.” The inimitable Men in Blazers followed suit on their commentary after the loss, assuring us that while they were very much against war, they agreed that the U.S. could stand more military instillations on foreign soil—perhaps in Belgium itself.

As often is the case, the joke was also a great form of interpretation. For there is a curious irony in the fact that the U.S., thanks to its global—many would say imperial—military presence in Europe and beyond, has created a very specific kind of diaspora: children of Americans trained overseas, and for free, in some of the best soccer academies in the world. That all five are the sons of African-American soldiers also connects this story to our own social history. The army has long been a site for social advancement open to groups who found other avenues closed off. And though I don’t know the details of the biographies of the American fathers of these five players, it is at least plausible to think of their decisions to spend careers in Germany as not only professional choices but also personal ones. After all there is also a long tradition of African-Americans finding respite from racism and new opportunities in Europe. These accumulated family histories are the foundation for Klinsmann’s choice to create a U.S. team with foreign-born and -raised players who played critical roles on the pitch.

The story of the Belgian team is very different. The Red Devils are a very diverse team in terms of the background of their players, many of whom are children of immigrants. But only one of the players on the Belgian team—Anthony Borre—was born abroad, in Zaïre, the child of a Belgian father and a Congolese mother, and came to Belgium as a young child. Everyone else on the team was born in Belgium: Fellaini and Kompany are Bruxelloix, Lukaku from Antwerp, Mirallas from Liège. And, importantly, they all were trained from a young age in Belgium’s excellent football academies, profiting from a strong, state-supported, web of training institutions like the ones that shaped the U.S. players on the German team.

The lives of these Belgian players were shaped by a project—described in a beautiful essay about “The Rise of the Red Devils” by Sam Knight—spear-headed by Michel Sablon, the head of the Belgian FA to create a “utopian system of soccer,” based on a careful study of what was being done in France and other neighboring countries, aimed at regenerating the nation’s football. It was a long road, with many twists and turns and setbacks, but last night one could clearly see that it had paid off. The level of technical skill, strategic confidence, and grounding of the Belgian team was impressive.

It came as a bit of a surprise, too, because the earlier performances of the team—which had come in burdened by hype—in this World Cup were not that stunning, though on the other hand they were among the four teams to win all three of their group matches. As Brian Phillips noted of Belgium in the run up to the game: “Everyone’s saying that they looked vulnerable in their group-stage matches, and that’s true, although the way people are saying it does kind of tend to overlook the fact that the USMNT spent the majority of its group-stage matches one Beasley or Gonzalez or Beckerman clearance away from being goal-scored-on back to the Stone Age.” Lukaku hadn’t spent much time on the pitch at all, and hadn’t yet scored, and one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the Belgium team had been quite stealthy about this all. When he came onto the pitch in overtime, he changed everything—changed the game, changed the tournament, and ended the U.S. run in a matter of minutes.

The Belgian team is the product of a national infrastructure and a national project, something made all the more impressive by the fact that the country is a famously fragmented and politically dysfunctional one. The diversity of the team has incited a mix of enthusiasm and criticism, unsurprisingly. And some efforts to built excitement around the team seem a little out of step: on the site Belgiumizeme, you can turn yourself into a Belgian fan of the Red Devils by putting in your name and getting a new one. But the names you get don’t reflect the diversity of the team. In fact, when I tried it Divock Origi became Dirk Overmans, Romelu Lukaku became Richard Lambic, Marouane Fellaini became Modest Feyaerts. Meanwhile, when I entered my own name, I got the modest transformation to Louis Dubois, as if the site knew—and was telling me – “you’re already Belgian!” Still, the team has already incited a broader conversation in Belgium about the country’s national identity, and in this parallels in some—though in a very different context, and a very different time—the ways in which the French national team has done the same.

Romelu Lukaku and Divock Origi are both the children of African immigrants to Belgium, but they are also both legacy footballers: Lukaku’s father was a professional football player who once played on the national team of Zaïre. (After his goal, Lukaku ran to the camera, grabbed it, and said “Je t’aime Papa!” “I love you Dad!”) And Origi’s Kenyan father also was a footballer who represented his nation on the international stage. So they represented not only a history of migration, but also the transfer of African footballing traditions to a new context. And you could see why Lukaku is highly prized striker in the English Premier League, and Origi on the cusp of what will clearly be a brilliant career. 

These players’ place in professional football is, of course, the other part of this story. The Belgium team is stacked with some of the best-known franchises in football—Hazard at Chelsea, Kompany at Manchester City, Courtois at Atlético Madrid. At Everton, Lukaku plays with none other that Tim Howard, against whom he scored devastatingly last night. They shared a tender hug at the end of the game. That isn’t surprising: these days, as professional colleagues, Howard and Lukaku play together a lot more than Howard and Dempsey do. You could see the respect among other players on opposing sides as well. When, late in the game, Jermaine Jones got struck in the face with the ball while tangling with De Bruyne, the red-headed Belgian squatted down quickly next to his American opponent, a hand on his back, in a gesture of sincere worry and tenderness. These moments—and the relative absence of the open hostility and referee-directed rage we’ve seen in other games—made the game a stand out.

What does the game ultimately tell us about the future of football in both countries? In some ways, Jurgen Klinsmann’s achievement last night was the greater of the two coaches. Wilmots tapped into a generation shaped by a concerted plan to find, train, and cultivate as wide a pool of youth players as possible. Klinsmann created his team out of a patchwork of influences, drawing on talent shaped in many different contexts in the U.S., but also opting to go abroad to find players who could make a difference. His gamble—leaving Donovan on the team and recruiting young, relatively unknown players like Brooks and Green—paid off stunningly. For it is the two of them, along with Jermaine Jones, who offered up three breathtaking and exhilarating goals that had crowds cheering and shaking like never before. It was also, in its way, a perfectly American coaching job. Out of the varied and fragmented landscape that is soccer in the United States, he and the players invented something compelling, tapping into tradition but also improvising something unexpected. The result was engrossing and probably transformative, for never has this country been so intent, so committed to the combination of elation and heartbreak that defines the World Cup, than during the past few weeks.

There were also other strands of history at work last night, ones that suggest that the future of U.S. soccer may ultimately look a bit more like the present of Belgian football. DeAndre Yedlin, who lit up the pitch this World Cup, comes out of what is now the heartland of American soccer, the Pacific Northwest—trained in the Seattle Sounders academy, now playing for the team. (Along with Wondolowski, he is also partly of Native American descent, making them the only two players on the team who aren’t, in a larger sense, fully the product of immigration). His academy experience in a way parallels that of the German players on the team, as well as those of the Belgians they played against last night. And there are plenty of stories of players on the squad, notably Altidore, which parallel the stories of the children of migrants on the Belgian team. All of the players have, in one way or another, been shaped by structures of youth soccer, academies, and college training available in the U.S. But Klinsmann’s choices, his insistence on the need both to cultivate and to change U.S. soccer, will necessarily spur on conversations about whether and how things need to change, and whether the U.S. could learn something from the example of Belgium and Germany.  

Meanwhile, the Red Devils move on to their next challenge. As with so many World Cup match-ups, this one has a sedimented history. There was a match between Belgium and Argentina in 1982, which generated one of the most famous (if slightly misleading) pictures of Maradona, and which Belgium won. And then, in 1986, a more famous one—a semi-final game—that Argentina won 2-0. The Belgium team of that era lives on: They set the bar that the current Red Devils are trying to reach. If they can carry the confidence and spark they displayed against the U.S. into the next match, a win against Argentina is imaginable, even perhaps likely.

What remains, in the meantime, is those 120 minutes. I’ve gone back already to watch them again, re-reading, and what looked one way the first time looks different on the return. So much history—of individual choices and institutional projects, of dreams structured and improvised—came bearing down on the pitch last night. But the history that was ultimately made was the result of an accumulation of small moments, intricate encounters, almost all of which might easily have gone a different way.