The Red devils represent an ideal modern nation but ultimately merely mask the country's division.
The artist René Magritte was not a patriot. “I despise my own past and that of others,” he wrote of his native Belgium. Magritte’s surrealist paintings were often witty and thought-provoking. He is, together with fictional characters Tintin and Hercule Poirot and cyclist Eddy Merckx, a famous Belgian.
Recently, Belgium added no fewer than 11 names to its list of prominent citizens. Coach Marc Wilmots and his golden generation of Diables Rouges (Red Devils) are the dark horses at this World Cup. The revolutionary work of former technical director Michel Sablon is finally paying dividends.
For a long time, the Belgian press labelled these elite players the “Vuitton generation”, after their failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
At last, Belgium has come of age. This week, the Belgians defeated the Fennec Foxes of Algeria in Belo Horizonte 2-1, courtesy of goals from substitutes Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens.
The Belgian team is hot, so much so that a new word has come into vogue: “Belgitude”, a confluence between Belgium and attitude, that alludes to a nostalgic desire for an ideal and homogeneous country, with an understanding and even admiration for the complexity and absurdity of Belgium’s contradictions. In short, it’s a peculiar form of renewed patriotism.
Strictly speaking, Belgitude is not a new term. “The word refers to the construction of a national consciousness in the 20th century,” says Luc van Doorslaer, an associate professor in translation and journalism studies at the University of Leuven.
“For example, in literature, Belgitude was French but with typical, intrinsic Flemish characteristics. It’s questionable, from a historic point of view, to reintroduce the word now.”
Belgium captain Vincent Kompany and musician Stromae are symbols of Belgitude. Kompany, whose name comes from the family’s former servitude to a Belgian silver mine in Congo, plays at Manchester City and is considered the general of the Belgian outfit. Pop singer Stromae, whose father was killed in the Rwandan genocide, achieved fame with his hit Alors on danse. He also wrote Belgium’s official World Cup anthem, Ta Fête.
“Kompany and Stromae depict the new Belgitude,” Bart van Reusel, a faculty member of sports sciences at the University of Leuven, says.
“They both have African origins, but grew up in Belgium. They symbolise, even with bravura, the perfect, new Belgian citizen. They transcend the old divisions between the Francophones and the Flemish, and thus give shape to a renewed sense of contemporary Belgium.
“Kompany and Stromae are a symbol of the new Belgium: small but with an open view of the world and with the necessary self-confidence on stage and on the field. Maybe they help eliminate prejudices regarding integration and multiculturalism.”
From the starting 11 against Algeria, six players ply their trade in the English Premier League. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and right-back Toby Alderweireld play for Atletico Madrid, holding midfielder Axel Witsel is a Zenit player and Daniel van Buyten and Kevin de Bruyne light up the German Bundesliga.
Striker Romelu Lukaku has Congolese roots and enforcer Moussa Dembele is from Mali, while winger Nasser Chadli and substitute Fellaini have Moroccan parents. It’s an eclectic group of players, who play at the very best clubs abroad for big bucks.
Are they the last Belgians? As true cosmopolitans, the often petty, political discussions leave them quite indifferent. They like Belgium as it is. With its new brand of football, this youthful Belgium team brings a feel-good factor to the small Western European country.
Yet football doesn’t change the behaviour of the electorate. A few weeks before the World Cup, the N-VA, on the right of the political spectrum, scored a thumping win of about 33% of the Flemish votes to consolidate its position as Belgium’s largest political party. Led by Bart de Wever, the party advocates “confederalism”, a process that entails the slow dissolution of Belgium.
In 2012, Kompany and De Wever exchanged words. After becoming mayor of Antwerp, De Wever told his supporters: “Antwerp is for everybody, but tonight, especially for us.” When Belgium won a World Cup qualifier away to Scotland a few days later, Kompany tweeted a cheeky response: “Belgium is for everybody, but tonight, especially for us!”
The Belgian national team has become a potent symbol in the political debate between pro-Belgian factions and Flemish nationalists, but it creates only “90-minute patriots”, and therefore its role is limited.
“The Red Devils are a hype and that is excellent for a collective party and a Belgian football identity,” says Van Reusel. “But this populistic football nationalism is temporary and superficial. It won’t solve Belgium’s problems.”
Michel D’Hooghe, the former chairperson of the Belgian Football Association and a long-standing member of the Fifa executive committee, echoes Van Reusel’s observations. “The Red Devils unite all Belgians in a social and sportive sense, but much less so in political sense,” D’Hooghe says.
Belgium has two winnable fixtures against Russia and South Korea remaining in Group H. So, for now, Belgium and its fans will continue riding the sentiment of Belgitude.