No Pressure, Belgian National Team—Just Keep the Country From Splintering Apart

Slate's soccer blog.
June 30 2014 10:11 AM

No Pressure, Belgian National Team—Just Keep the Country From Splintering Apart

Belgian national team
Must ... save ... Belgium.

Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Belgium’s gaffe-happy former Prime Minister Yves Leterme once famously said that the only things all Belgians have in common are “the King, the football team, some beers.” Say what you will about the pressure on Team USA heading into Tuesday’s showdown against Belgium—at least nobody’s expecting them to keep the whole country from falling apart.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Belgium has now gone more than a month since the most recent elections without the parties in parliament being able to form a government. This might be noteworthy except that Belgium went a world record 540 days without a government back in 2010 and 2011. The underlying issue is the division between the country’s Dutch-speaking Flemish majority and the French-speaking Walloons. The Flemish, in particular, largely favor further devolution of power to regional governments and resent their tax dollars going to support the less prosperous French-speaking south. Belgians, more or less, live in separate areas, watch separate TV, read separate newspapers, and vote for separate politicians.


A party led by leading Flemish separatist Bart de Wever won the most seats in the most recent parliamentary election, but he has struggled to get support from the Francophone parties he likely needs in order to form a government.

Which brings us to the national soccer team, known as the Red Devils and a trendy pick to surprise at this year’s World Cup. The team has been a rare source of national pride for what’s generally ranked as one of the least patriotic populations in Europe. The team’s roster features both French and Flemish names as well as a strong contingent of players from second-generation immigrant families from countries including Congo, Morocco, Mali, and Italy.

National team captain Vincent Kompany, whose father is from Belgium’s former colony Congo, has been an outspoken advocate of national unity, tweeting, “Proud of my team, proud of our country, together we can achieve anything #Belgium,” after a recent victory. Chants of “Bart, tonight you are alone,” directed at de Wever, have been heard in the stands at the team’s games.

Enthusiasm for the team has reportedly been equally strong in Flemish and Walloon areas, and for once, Belgium seems to be acting like a real, united country rather than the artificial creation portrayed by its critics. Not surprisingly, King Philippe made the trip to Brazil, and I’m guessing more than a few Hoegaardens and Leffes will be consumed as well.

Of course, not everyone’s caught up in Red Devil fever. Belgium, like many European countries, has had problems with racism against nonwhite players. Flemish nationalist leader Filip Dewinter of the far-right nationalist Vlaams Belang party has also called for separate Flemish and Walloon teams and started a petition calling for “Flemish Lions instead of Red Devils.”

If nothing else, this seems like a poor soccer decision. The nationalists might want to consider the experience of the United Kingdom, another sovereign entity whose very existence is challenged by separatist sentiment, and whose component countries mostly compete separately in international play. (The Olympics, which features a unified Great Britain and Northern Ireland team, is one major exception.) Team England was, of course, a disappointing washout at this year’s World Cup, but just imagine the possibilities if the team had been able to start Welsh superstar Gareth Bale.

Let this be a lesson to Belgians: United we make it to the World Cup, divided we don’t make it out of European qualifying.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 



The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10


Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
The Vault
Oct. 1 2014 10:49 AM James Meredith, Determined to Enroll at Ole Miss, Declares His Purpose in a 1961 Letter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 10:27 AM 3,000 French Scientists Are Marching to Demand More Research Funding
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.