The success of Belgium's national football team as a key site for political struggles over identity, race and immigration.
Everyone in the room was screaming. Neymar had fallen down again and for a second it looked like he might get a penalty. Belgium was ahead 2-1 and after the Japan game we all knew the match could turn quickly. We were in Molenbeek, the often vilified “hell hole” or “breading ground for ISIS recruits.” The room was filled with Afro-Belgians from all kinds of backgrounds: Moroccan, Tunisian, Senegalese, Congolese and every shade in between. On the screen we saw a national team that represented (almost) everyone in that room, and they where winning. We’re not used to winning. There’s even an op-ed in the New York Times that explores how Belgium wouldn’t know what to be if we win the World Cup. Those of us in that hot and overcrowded room weren’t even used to seeing ourselves represented on any screen, let alone in a successful and collaborative light. #Tousensemble is therefore a very apt battle cry.
Not everyone is together though.
The New Flemish Alliance or NVA, the largest political party in Belgium and the dominant partner in the current governing coalition, have yet to say anything positive about the national team’s success. This is the party that has spawned such outbursts as “Congolese and Moroccan immigration have not benefited the country” (via its minister of migration, Theo Francken). And the mayor of Antwerp, Bart de Wever, also a NV-A politician: “Racism is relative. Asians don’t seem to have a problem.” When Belgium played Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, one could not help noticing that De Wever had hung a Flemish nationalist flag instead of the Belgian flag from one of the windows at his house. De Wever had a ready excuse (he claimed to have hung it before he went on holiday to Singapore before the World Cup started). But, we all know why he did it.
What this team and its success represent is very harmful to De Wever and the NVA’s agenda. How can you argue for a zero tolerance immigration policy when some of the most successful players in the national team do not fit your preferred color scheme for Belgium? How can you argue for Flemish independence when a large part of the national team come from Brussels? Difficult questions for the NV-A to answer, so they don’t say anything at all.
Even on the pro-Red Devils side, something isn’t quite right. One of the team’s stars, Romelu Lukaku, recently denounced the different kinds of treatment he gets in the Belgian media depending on his performance:
When things were going well, I was reading newspapers articles and they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker.
When things weren’t going well, they were calling me Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.
Lukaku’s point is one worth repeating, because the love we have for the players in our team is more conditional for some, than for others. When Kevin De Bruyne isn’t performing to expectations, he’s having a bad day. When Michy Batshuayi isn’t, it’s down to his playfulness, lack of focus or downright stupidity.
This kind of analysis is not exceptional when it comes to athletes, but in Belgium there is little to no self-reflection when it comes to essentializing players. In a recent column in quality newspaper, De Standaard, its editor Steven de Foer compared Vincent Kompany to a chocolate, “black on the outside but white on the inside” when discussing Kompany’s leadership skills and intelligence. De Foer also included this line: “[Kompany is] still African when it comes to being late to practice” (Alleen zijn stiptheid is nog steeds ‘Afrikaans’). De Foer’s article was supposed to be an in-depth analyses to figure out why this diverse team of players worked so well together as a team. Instead of saying something interesting about the diversity in Belgium’s national team or doing some real analyses about the skills of the players, he went the route of a 19th century anthropologist. Comparing a black player to a candy bar, deciding that another star, Eden Hazard, is kind of African because he likes a joke or making it the mixed players’ job to be a “bridge between cultures.”
This “golden generation” of players didn’t just appear. After the success of France’s ‘black-blanc-beur’ model (beur refers to people of Arabic or North African descent) in the 1990’s, Belgium’s FA overhauled its youth program. Players like Hazard, Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini are the result of this overhaul. Their success is now used to counter the growing pro-white, anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric in the country. We are saying: ‘Look at us, we’re playing together, winning together and celebrating together.’ But like in France after the 1998 World Cup, this new unity has seen a rise in right wing populism and is not sustainable. When mistakes are made the star player becomes the stupid Congolese guy. Only six days ago a woman was attacked, stripped and mutilated for wearing a headscarf. Maybe because we hadn’t beaten Brazil by then, the attackers weren’t convinced yet.