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The Rise of the Red Devils

How Belgium built one of the top contenders for the 2014 World Cup, and what the team means to this fractious nation

1. Famous Belgians

When I was about 10 years old, my father told me the joke about famous Belgians. Few things tickle my father more than pithy little axioms that turn out to be unarguable. Never sleep with a woman who keeps a diary. Always jump off the high side of a sinking ship. Great art is about love and loss. Don’t commit troops to a land war in Asia. You can’t name 10 famous Belgians.

For a long time, the line held. A nice piece of English condescension toward an odd, troubled little European country that spent the first half of the 20th century getting invaded and the second half hosting international organizations that were too boring to exist anywhere else. And the wisecrack was true — you couldn’t get to 10. You started with Tintin, or Hergé, (or Georges Remi, the actual cartoonist). Then you got Eddy Merckx, the cyclist. Then, if you were growing up in Britain in the 1980s, like me, and you saw him on TV every weekend, you asked if you were allowed Poirot, even though he was fictional. And Poirot was permitted. Because guess what? You weren’t getting to 10. And sure, you could scour your sister’s encyclopedia and get Leo Baekeland, who invented a kind of plastic called Bakelite, and you might go through a pretentious surrealist phase as a teenager with René Magritte posters on your walls and add him to the mix. You could kid yourself that you were making progress. But you knew, and your dad knew, and even Belgium knew, that there was no chance of making it to 10. It could just as well have been five.

So I was conscious of a tiny feeling of loss — the latest filing-away of my childhood — when I rode the train recently from London to Brussels and stood on the edge of a soccer field containing no fewer than 15 famous Belgians. My father’s wit gave out right before my eyes as I watched the members of the national team undertake some light evening training a couple days before their final pre–World Cup friendly against Ivory Coast. And that is because, without much warning and without heeding the idea that it is not really associated with world-class soccer, Belgium has recently become a factory for many of the sport’s best-known and most valuable players. The “Red Devils,” as they are known, are expected to be one of the most exciting teams in this summer’s tournament.

A few yards away, on the other side of a low hedge, Simon Mignolet and Thibaut Courtois, of Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, were throwing themselves through drills with a quiet, gum-chewing intensity. The two men are among the finest young goalkeepers in the world. Mignolet is fast and sturdy, like a prodigiously gifted farmhand, but Courtois, who is just 22 and has the long frame of a swimmer, has recently displaced him as Belgium’s starter. (Everyone agrees Mignolet has done nothing wrong; Courtois, whose “impossible save” helped knock Chelsea out of this year’s Champions League, is just better.) Beyond them, an equally starry squad was playing a loose game of attack and defense against a backdrop of low houses, scrub, and trees. A few geese flew over as Daniel van Buyten, the Bayern Munich defender, cut inside Axel Witsel, a $55.2 million signing for Zenit St. Petersburg in 2012, and thrashed the ball high into the roof of the net.

It is difficult to convey the strangeness of watching this. Until I found the celebrity athletes in mid-training, my surroundings and the whole vibe had been, well, extremely Belgian. I had arrived earlier in the afternoon and taken the metro to the green, low-density suburbs outside Brussels. Posters in the stations showed the rate of climate change in the Antarctic. Challenging piano music, possibly Dvořák, played through the PA system. I disembarked at Eddy Merckx station and walked through a quiet landscape of modest sporting facilities — a dry ski slope, locked up for spring, and a small stadium tucked into the side of a hill. Runners jogged down to a small lake. There were children’s nurseries. People nodded good evening to one another. Then, all of a sudden I was face-to-chest with Marouane Fellaini, the gangling, microphone-haired $45.4 million Manchester United midfielder.

It was jarring. History says you don’t find these players here. Belgium is not Holland or France or Germany. It’s never been a first-rank soccer nation. Until recently, Belgium’s much larger claim to fame has been its quiet, stubborn doubt that it is a nation at all. The 11 million people who comprise its population — a collection of French speakers, Dutch-speaking Flemish, and ethnic Germans — often give the impression that they just happen to live there. (Belgium recently went two years without an elected government, and its largest political party, the Flemish NVA, is committed to the long-term breakup of the country.) Belgium’s greatest achievement in the beautiful game remains winning gold at the 1920 Olympics, when its Czechoslovakian opponents abandoned the final at halftime in a protest over the refereeing.

So even the people of Belgium have needed a few years to adjust to having a national team worth hundreds of millions of dollars in transfer fees and expected to last deep into the 2014 World Cup. People in the soccer world noticed something stirring at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when the country’s under-23 side reached the semifinals. But the new sharp kids didn’t cut it in the homeland. They didn’t look or act like Belgium’s capable teams of the past — clever, bearded practitioners of the offside trap, with a gifted striker up front to snaffle the goals. The new generation didn’t seem to care much, either. They turned up late for training. They didn’t defer to their old, mediocre coaches. They failed to make the World Cup in 2010 and even the European Championships in 2012, when they got caught up in ridiculous, naive games instead of grinding out results against weaker teams during the qualification period. The most infamous example was a 4-4 draw with Austria in October 2010, in which Belgium, playing at home, gave up two leads to a team playing with 10 men. In 2011, arguably the most talented player of the lot, Eden Hazard — now the $43.8 million fulcrum of Chelsea FC — got subbed out during a qualifier against Turkey and walked straight out to eat a burger in the parking lot while the match carried on inside. The Belgian press named them “The Vuitton Generation.”

But things are different now. Everyone is a few years older. They are richer and more determined. Since Beijing, Belgium’s best players — almost the entire national squad — have gone abroad to play for some of the wealthiest clubs in Europe. According to Jacques Lichtenstein, the agent who represents Vincent Kompany, the captain and cornerstone of both Belgium and Manchester City, the Vuitton boys are now ready to contemplate a national, collective endeavor. “Individually, already they have reached something,” Lichtenstein told me. “Now all of a sudden they want to tell their offspring they have won the cups — [that] they have played in the biggest competition, they have been to the World Cup.”

They’ve got the coach they want, too. Before he took over in May 2012, Marc Wilmots, a former striker for the national team who had a brief career as a Belgian senator, met with the senior players and made sure of their support. That summer, the Red Devils took off. In a friendly game now spliced, slow-mo’d, set to European house music, and sprayed all over YouTube, Belgium dominated the Netherlands, their next-door neighbors and permanent soccer superiors, 4-2. And they didn’t just score more. They out-swerved and out-tricked the Dutch. They tore them a new one.

“We were attacking Holland!” Eric Reynaerts, the leader of the team’s official fan club, told me, as if this were subverting all that is natural in the world. “I have never seen that!” Under Wilmots, the new Belgian players have appeared to banish not only Belgium’s old style of soccer (opportunistic, defensively minded) but also a national way of thinking. “We are always the small Belgians,” Reynaerts said. “Every time, we are modest. Now there is a little bit of realizing we can be big, too.” The current side want the ball at their feet. To make rhythms. To suck in other teams with neat, going-nowhere triangles, before springing the ball to the free man. (Here, at 57 seconds). In Hazard and Napoli winger Dries Mertens, they have pickpockets and shufflers. In Kompany, Fellaini, and their big, physical strikers, Belgium has enforcers and men to run through walls. Last October, Belgium qualified for the World Cup without losing a game. The team reached an all-time high of fifth in the FIFA world rankings, up 59 places in three years, and when you talk to people in Belgium now about the team’s chances in Brazil, no one wants to speak about limits. “If they don’t get to the quarterfinal,” Lichtenstein said, “I think everyone will be disappointed.”

And why shouldn’t they be? As the evening training session in Brussels wound down, I turned around to look into the locker room, where some of the most precious players of all were being softly pummeled and oiled. Hazard was talking a mile a minute to Christian Benteke, the bulky no. 9 for Aston Villa and Wilmot’s first-choice striker (who has since suffered an Achilles injury and won’t be able to play at the World Cup). Sitting alone, a few feet away, was Kompany. Twenty-four hours earlier, he had lifted England’s League Cup, Manchester City’s first trophy of the season, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium. This past Sunday, he thumped in the decisive second goal against West Ham to seal the club’s second Premiership title in three years. And here in Belgium, Kompany was staring out at the pitch, like a general contemplating battle, the shadows of his teammates growing long in the fading light.

2. A “Utopian” System of Soccer

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Virginie Lefour/AFP/Getty Images

Michel Sablon’s phone doesn’t stop ringing. He is the man credited with building the Belgian soccer production line. When we met at the headquarters of the Royal Belgian Football Association, Sablon had just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe, where he had been visiting coaches and national federations from Bulgaria to Azerbaijan. Everyone had been begging for secrets. Sablon, who is 67, looked like he could do with a break. “Too many,” he said, when I asked how many countries were calling him these days. “I was on Romanian television for two hours.”

Belgium’s rise began with humiliation. Sablon was an assistant coach at the 1986 World Cup for Belgium’s last “golden generation.” Built on brilliant goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff and midfielder Enzo Scifo, known as “Le Petit Pelé,” the team reached the semifinals. A decade and a half later, Sablon was asked to run the Belgian half of Euro 2000, which the country cohosted with Holland. But the tournament was a disaster for the national team. Boring, slow and unimaginative — “talking instead of playing,” says Sablon — the Belgians scored two goals in four minutes in their first match against Sweden and did precisely nothing after that. Belgium lost its subsequent games and became the first-ever host of a European tournament to be knocked out in the first round.

Sablon became the technical director of the Belgian FA two years later. His first move was to tear up the existing system. “We started from scratch,” he explained. “We said, ‘What we’re doing now, it doesn’t work.’” The national team was out of ideas. The youth teams coming through weren’t getting any better. Coaching was mired in outdated soccer dogma — 8-year-old girls were being asked to play as liberos, sweepers in the Beckenbauer mold, because Belgium’s professional teams had a thing for playing three central defenders at the time. It didn’t make sense to teach the game that way. No one was having any fun.

Sablon worked like a maniac. He spent two years driving to Belgian youth competitions and studying what the French and Dutch national teams (at the time the strongest in the world) were up to. He commissioned researchers at the University of Leuven to analyze 1,600 hours of footage of young boys playing 11-on-11 to figure out how often they actually touched the ball (an average of four touches per player every 20 minutes). He convened People’s Congress–style meetings with groups of coaches from various levels of Belgian football to discuss formations and training methods. “We were crazy, of course,” he told me. “We never stopped. We started in the morning and we finished in the night. Every day, Saturday and Sunday.”

The result, unveiled in 2004, was Belgium’s master plan, called G-A-G — Global-Analytique-Global in French, or Globaal-Analytisch-Globaal in Dutch. The idea was to fuse the best of French soccer — its emphasis on physical power and tactical efficiency, hence “Analytique” — with the dreamy technique of the Dutch (“Global”), and invent a new kind of exciting, attacking soccer (“Global” again). “Our ultimate goal is deliberately utopian,” Sablon’s successor, Bob Browaeys, said recently. (Sablon retired from the FA in 2012.) “One hundred percent possession of the ball.”

In practice, G-A-G means standardization. All over Belgium these days, boys and girls grow up playing soccer the same way. Every school, youth academy, and village team plays the same formation — 4-3-3, with classic, dribbling wingers — and follows the same progression up to the 11-on-a-side game. Kids under the age of 7 play 2-on-2; under-9s play 5-on-5; under-11s play 8-on-8. They never use more than half the field. It is only when they’re 12 years old that boys and girls are finally introduced to a full-size pitch and the idea of a long pass.

It hasn’t been easy. Amateur clubs grouse about change and squabble over money. Young Belgian teams also lose a lot. It’s harder to be utopian than it is to play the offside trap. “It takes some five or six years for our youth teams,” Sablon said. “They play open. They are attacking all the time. They lose, but that is not our problem … The identity and the development of the players is much more important than that.”

When I spoke to coaches of Belgium’s professional teams, no one disputed the impact of Sablon’s plan. It was there in the PowerPoint presentations they showed to parents of boys entering their academies, and it was there when I walked into King Baudouin Stadium the morning before the Ivory Coast match and saw the Red Devils running their drills. The entire squad, except for the goalkeepers, was crammed into a coned-out section of the pitch between the midfield line and the edge of the penalty area. In teams of 12, they were playing two-touch and trying to keep the ball from each other. Circulation de balle is played wherever soccer is taught in Belgium, and the world’s fourth-most expensive team at this summer’s World Cup was going at it like 9-year-olds. No goals, no direction of play, just swarming up and down, looking for neat passes, throwing themselves at interceptions. Whenever the ball went out of bounds, Coach Wilmots, who stood amid his players like a man feeding pigeons in the park, dropped another ball in, and the flock went at it again.

3. Belgium and the Economic Pecking Order of European Soccer

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G-A-G isn’t the end of the story. It might not even be the beginning. This is Belgium, after all, where stories are fragmented and nobody agrees on the order of things. It also happens to be a very active corner of Europe’s multibillion-dollar soccer market, and some experts see the Red Devils’ rise as a natural outgrowth of sporting capitalism. You often hear this from Belgium’s professional clubs, and one afternoon I took the train out to the country’s far eastern border to visit a team called KRC Genk.

Genk is a former coal-mining town. Beyond its borders, the perfect triangles of slag heaps stand around in the sunshine. Being Flemish, its team, Racing Genk, carries the prefix Koninklijke. (Clubs in Belgium’s Francophone south use the prefix Royal.) Influenced from its founding by Dutch football and, in particular, by the model of Ajax Amsterdam, KRC Genk won Belgium’s Jupiler League championship in 2011. Results have been patchier since then, but the club, like Ajax, is admired across Europe for its knack for finding extraordinary young players in its youth academy. Christian Benteke, Thibaut Courtois, and Kevin De Bruyne (a young, two-footed midfielder sold by Chelsea to Wolfsburg for $25.3 million this January) all came through Genk, and when I toured the club’s shining, box-fresh facilities, its youth director, Roland Breugelmans, pointed out their names printed on the wall.

“That is the reason why we can grow,” he said. The sales of Courtois and De Bruyne in 2012 enabled the club to add another floor to its training complex. When I asked Breugelmans how Genk managed to discover players like this in a quiet, postindustrial corner of Belgium and with just 220 boys in the club’s youth program, he replied: “We have no choice.”

The “golden generation” is a romantic old saw in soccer, but what has happened at KFC Genk suggests that Belgium’s flowering of talent has more to do with economic specialization than a serendipitous glut of natural-born talent. Next to the leagues of Spain, England, and Germany, Belgium’s professional game is tiny and inherently constrained. Thirty-four teams play for a perennially divided television audience of 6 million Flemish and 4.5 million French speakers. The most successful Belgian teams get broadcast revenues worth about $6.8 million per season. By contrast, the bottom club in the English Premier League got $128.4 million for its 2013-14 rights. Competing in an open market with other European clubs whose budgets are five, six, or 10 times greater than the wealthiest Belgian teams’ budgets, professional soccer in Belgium is subject to the constant, unthinking erosion of other people’s money.

The only way for Belgian teams to survive financially has been to cultivate young talent and then cash it in with transfers to wealthier foreign clubs. This is Belgium’s competitive niche, and coaches and clubs have gotten very, very good at it. “It is our business model,” said Jean-Francois De Sart, the technical director of Standard Liege, currently Belgium’s top side. As usual, Liege is expected to sell its best player, a young forward named Michy Batshuayi, this summer. I asked De Sart if this endless unearthing, nurturing, and selling of players — without ever seeing the final result of his labors — depressed him. “No,” he said. “We try to improve our budget, but, OK, it is also the way to make, to live a life … We know in which world we are in.”

And in many ways, the Red Devils of 2014 are the payoff. Belgium’s domestic clubs might be too small and too poor to retain the players they have developed, but now, at last, there is a chance for everything to come together. Other countries have already done this. The top French and Dutch players have been playing abroad for 20 years or more. But this is the first Belgian generation to successfully graduate, en masse, to Europe’s top teams. Maybe that is why it feels like an achievement. “It is special,” said De Sart, who used to run the national youth teams under Sablon. “In England they don’t need young players. They don’t need to invest … They will do it, but they don’t need to. We need it. Absolutely.”

4. The New Belgians

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So there has been a plan. There has been the ruthless capitalism of the world’s most popular sport. But there has also been a third impetus shaping Belgium’s World Cup team, and that is immigration. The morning before the match, watching the squad go through its G-A-G routines at the national stadium, it was impossible not to be struck by the contrast between the all-white coaching staff, the mixed ethnicity of the players (the current Red Devils have roots from Morocco to Indonesia, Martinique to Congo), and the crowd that had come to watch.

Like every country in Europe, Belgium has been the subject of waves of immigration since the late 1960s. (Around 20 percent of the current population is foreign-born.) But soccer has always been unusually present — as a tool, mirror, and binding agent — in Belgium’s attempts to adapt to a new kind of society. In turn, from the pioneering hired guns in the Jupiler League to the kids growing up in rough parts of Brussels and Liège, Congolese and Moroccan players have changed the way the nation plays football. More intricacy. More feints. More urban. More freestyle. Michel Sablon recognized this when he overhauled the country’s approach to the game a decade ago. The phrase le football de rue (street soccer) is everywhere in Belgian FA documents. Browaeys, Sablon’s successor, speaks of the “childlike pleasure” of the game played this way. And after they finished the possession game at the stadium, it was possible to see the Belgian players enjoying themselves.

In their next drill, a player swept the ball from the center circle deep out to the wing, where a teammate had to control it with a single touch inside a small box of cones, and then return a cross for the first player to score. The crowd whooped and groaned as Kompany, Benteke, and Fellaini took turns throwing themselves at errant crosses and burying the ball in the net. The real pleasure, however, was in watching that first controlling touch: the extravagant neatness of Hazard, Witsel, and Everton winger Kevin Mirallas; the athletic OCD to leap and command the ball in such a narrow space, then run all the way around it, and then smack it somewhere else. On the way back to my room that night, near Brussels’s main railway station, I saw a couple kids playing a nearly identical game in the street. They were taking two touches — no more — and bending their bodies to fit rules of their own devising. The pointless joy of that composition.

Of course, there is more going on with le football de rue in Belgium than step-overs and quick hips and drag-backs. The current team has drawn comparisons to France’s World Cup champion “rainbow team” of 1998 — as a symbol of multicultural possibility. However, this being Belgium, a vaguely constructed nation whose population has never truly embraced Belgian identity in the first place, it can feel foolish to make any sweeping statements about society and what such things symbolize. Sometimes it can feel crazy to even ask questions.

After the players had finished training that morning, we all trooped to a press briefing and listened to the usual blandishments. Kompany and Wilmots, switching between French and Dutch, talked about the belief and the spirit in the squad and the skill of the Ivorian players. Then I asked Wilmots to compare the team he was managing to the Belgian teams he had played for in the 1990s. He looked at me as if I were daft. “What kind of a question is that?” he snapped. Wilmots batted the microphone away in irritation. “I don’t speak about the past. I speak about the future. It’s the same for the players. They will write their own history.”

5. The Last Belgians

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Belgium can be a bit like that. There’s so much going on beneath the surface. Being there reminded me of a household where the parents have separated but decided to remain in the same home because it makes financial sense. From the outside, it might seem like a sensible arrangement, but on the inside there are all these uncrossable lines the inhabitants have internalized — an unseen tracery of sadness, of love that did not last. In a way, that’s Belgium.

One night, the sportswriter Raf Willems tried to explain it to me. We met in Lier, about 30 miles north of Brussels, the hometown of Jan Ceulemans, the most capped player in Belgium’s history. Willems has written 30 books about soccer, including, most recently, one about Belgian players in the Premier League. “Belgium is one of the best countries to live in the world,” he said. “But we don’t know it. We think it is really bad to live here.”

The condensed version goes like this: For many centuries, the land north of France was a quilt of duchies, cities, and bishoprics that marked the border between Romance (French, Latin) and Germanic Europe. People spoke Frisian, Dutch, French, German, and Luxembourgian. After the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, the great powers of Europe tried to stitch the Netherlands and the Southern Netherlands — groups of provinces that had split on religious grounds two centuries earlier — into a single country. But it didn’t work. It came apart again. What was left was Belgium. “It is a little bit … ” said Willems. He paused. “It is not a real country.”

Back then, the invented nation — named after the “Belges,” a long-lost Celtic tribe — was dominated by a French-speaking liberal elite who opened banks and railways and laid down rules for the Flemish-speaking yokels in the fields. But ever since, the pendulum has been swinging the other way, with the country’s Flemish majority (around 60 percent of the population) steadily asserting its linguistic, economic, and political power, while the French speakers have hung on for dear life. The result is a constantly shifting, almost perfectly incomprehensible experiment in compromise — an antidote to nationalism and a magnet for surrealists. There is the Flemish north, the French-speaking south, and the shared capital of Brussels, which has its own parliament. (“Everyone hates Brussels,” explained Willems, “but they are proud of themselves.”) The country is governed through a riddle of regions that are communities and communities that aren’t regions. And don’t get smart and think that Belgium is bilingual, or even trilingual, because of its 74,000 German speakers. This is the land of official dual monolingualism. “That is our absurdism,” said Willems. “Belgium is an absurd country. That is a statement, you know that?”

The official line is that soccer has somehow managed to steer clear of all this. “The king and football are the only things that hold the country together” goes the popular cliché. In reality, the sport has been as contested as everything else. The game was introduced by French urban elites in the 1880s. They insisted on administering it in the French language, even after the Flemish masses had also started playing. By the late 1920s — a time of general Flemish activism — a referee named Jules Vranken had decided he was fed up and established a rival Flemish Football Association. “Clubs with a Flemish character, affiliate with us and break off from the Belgian association,” he appealed. “Our success depends on you.”

And for a time, it appeared as if soccer — like Belgium’s school system, its bar association, and its Boy Scouts — would split along linguistic lines. More than 400 clubs defected. The bifurcation might have become permanent, but then Flemish football took a turn for the fascist. Vranken was succeeded by Robert Verbelen, a right-wing nationalist who admired the sporting intensity of Hitler’s Germany and who would go on to found the Flemish SS after the Nazi invasion of 1940. “A great miracle took place,” Verbelen wrote that summer in Volk en Staat, a Flemish nationalist newspaper. “Out of the east there came a people, a superior broedervolk (fraternal people) … Flemish people will not stay behind.” After the war, Verbelen fled to Austria and soccer separatism disappeared with him. The Belgian FA published its rules in Dutch, and football became strikingly national and harmonious. The only unwritten rule, present in the mind of every Red Devils coach, was to pick a roughly equal number of Flemish and French-speaking players. Crowds watching the national team chanted in English to circumvent the language problem.

This was the unhappily balanced environment into which immigrants, mainly from around the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, but also from farther south, began arriving in large numbers in the late 1980s. The demographic shift was a shock, particularly in Belgium’s urban centers, many of which had aging, shrinking populations. Unlike in, for example, Paris, the poorer districts of many Belgian cities are centrally located, so the newcomers — young Africans, Turks, and Moroccans, looking for work and bearing children — were particularly visible. A series of immigrant riots, mainly over joblessness and cramped housing, shook the country in the spring of 1991. Immigration also forced many ordinary Belgians to confront their country’s colonial shame in Congo. Between 1885 and 1908, the enormous central African state, 80 times the size of Belgium, was owned as a personal possession of the Belgian King Leopold II. Millions of Congolese died in a genocidal rubber production program that made Belgium rich.

“There is a moment of the history where one doesn’t speak about,” Johan Leman, a Belgian anthropologist, told me. “That is the Leopold II period.” Like most of his generation, the only image Leman had of Congo growing up was as a model African village — essentially a human zoo — he saw at the Brussels World Fair in 1958. Congo became independent two years later, but in the late 1980s the nation began to drift into civil war — prompting an exodus of mostly educated, middle-class Congolese to their highly ambivalent former colonizer. In 1989, Leman was put in charge of drawing up Belgium’s first-ever migrants’ policy to help integrate the new society.

And one of Leman’s solutions was soccer. “The idea was, OK, we will not find employment immediately for all these young people,” he said. “Not that all people would become engineers. But you can create hope, and sport is one of these instruments. You can create role models in such districts … [and] also role models with some significance for the people outside.” So Leman started persuading crowded municipalities to build the sturdy, concrete soccer cages that now exist all over Belgium. “Football,” he said. “It was really obvious to play that card … The only thing you needed was a piece of field.”

You can’t draw a straight line from Belgium’s waves of immigration and Leman’s soccer cages to the Red Devils going to Brazil this summer, but you also can’t ignore the connection. Of the present team, Marouane Fellaini, Mousa Dembele (the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder), Anthony Vanden Borre, and Vincent Kompany are all sons of African immigrants, and they all grew up playing le football de rue. In 2013, Kompany bought a street soccer club in Brussels, renamed it Brussels BX, and established a system of financial incentives to persuade players to go to school.

The link with Congo is even plainer. Romelu Lukaku, the Chelsea striker currently on loan at Everton, who will lead the line for Belgium this summer in the absence of Benteke, is the son of Roger Lukaku, who played for Zaire at the 1994 World Cup. Benteke is the son of a former Congolese military commander. Vanden Borre was born there, while Kompany’s father, Pierre, was a student revolutionary who fled the country in 1968. The name “Kompany” comes from the family’s former servitude to a Belgian silver mine. “I think the impact is not small or medium,” said Lichtenstein, the agent, when we spoke about Congo’s part in the rise of Belgian football. “I think that the Congolese people and the country of Congo can feel that they have a big participation in the success, and the proudness, and the results, and the talent, that we have in our national team.”

Since he wrote his policy, Leman has seen Belgian society undergo profound changes. Brussels is now the youngest region in the country; more than half its residents are from overseas. Young black men like Kompany and the pop singer Stromae, whose father was killed in the Rwandan genocide, are continentwide celebrities — stone-cold, famous Belgians.

And here’s the thing: The new Belgians don’t really get the Flemish-French angst situation. They quite like Belgium as it is. Before I went to Brussels, I read a 1998 academic paper by two historians at the Free University of Brussels titled “Are Immigrants the Last Belgians?” It described the national outlook in typically self-deprecating terms: “There was no Belgian dream. … Belgium was often a non-choice … ” But the article also put forward the idea that the country’s newest citizens might be the first to truly accept Belgium on its own eccentric terms. Leman believes that theory has come true. “How to explain?” he said. “Our national discussions are internal discussions, and very domestic, and these guys coming from outside look at Belgium and they say, ‘Why destroy this country? With its nice system?’”

The word for this new, younger patriotism is “Belgitude.” Plenty of older Belgians remain skeptical of it. That is, after all, their ideological default. “I despise my own past and that of others,” wrote the artist Magritte. “I despise resignation, patience, professional heroism, and all the obligatory sentiments. I also despise the decorative arts, folklore, advertising, radio announcers’ voices, aerodynamics, the Boy Scouts, the smell of naphtha, the news, and drunks.”

It’s a tough crowd, no doubt. But Belgium’s soccer team does represent a powerful kind of wholeness — in its excellence, in its youth, in its disconnection from the country’s internecine hang-ups, and in its presentation within the feel-good vernacular of world soccer. It’s as if the kids growing up in their parents’ sad and divided house decided to be a family, after all. “The myth and foundation of Belgium is lacking,” Leman said. “And of course it is not a football team that will create this narrative. But believe me, if they arrive among the last eight, and surely if they arrive among the last four teams in Brazil, you will see what happens in Brussels, eh?”

6. Come On, Feel the Belgitude

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Let’s not get carried away. This is still Belgium. On the morning of the Ivory Coast match, I went to meet Ben Weyts, vice-president of the NVA, the country’s main Flemish party, who is also a soccer fan. By then I had been in the country a few days, and I was developing a sense for its near-constant, low-frequency peculiarity. Every morning in the street outside the apartment where I was staying, I walked past a smart steel platform mounted with a trumpet. Nobody ever blew it. The metro entrance was decorated with a case of mammoth and elk bones. When I got to the Belgian Parliament, a sign on the building told me it was the former headquarters of the country’s railway company. A large model train was on display in the lobby. This stuff gets to you in Belgium. You end up wondering how seriously to take anything.

That is definitely how people like Weyts see “Belgitude” — and Belgium, in a way. The NVA isn’t extreme. It gets 17 percent of the national vote and 28 percent in Flanders, which makes it the country’s largest political party, and it doesn’t want Belgium to break up overnight. It campaigns instead for a gradual sense of drift called “confederalism” and for Belgium to dissolve peacefully over several decades. (It won’t say how many.) “Necessary in Flanders, Useful in Europe” is the party’s slogan, emphasizing its complex local and supranational loyalties. But the line might as well be: “Why fake it, Belgium? It’s just not happening.” And that’s what Weyts thinks when he watches the Red Devils. “Of course I support them,” he deadpanned to me. “There is no other national team that has as many Flemish players.”

Weyts almost sounded as if he felt sorry for the young, fabulously gifted players being forced to pull on the national team’s red jerseys and represent such an illogical construct. “They think, I am part of the Belgian football team, I should promote Belgium too,” he said. “But in fact, in reality, in Belgian society, there is a division. And whether you want to promote a nonexistent Belgian identity or not, I don’t care. But in fact, you see that you get two different types of people. You have the Flemish, and you have the French-speaking. And they are each going their own way. Is that a problem? I don’t think so.”

Few people I spoke to in Belgium expected the feel-good vibes around the Red Devils or hip symbols like Stromae (his song “Ta Fête” is the country’s official World Cup anthem) to have any noticeable impact on the level of separatist feeling in this month’s parliamentary elections, which will occur a few weeks before the tournament begins. Yet there is still something faintly unreal about watching Belgium’s largest political party face off, however politely, with one of its most popular national symbols.

People in Belgium still talk — a lot — about an exchange that took place in 2012 between Vincent Kompany and NVA chairman Bart De Wever. On winning electoral control of the Flemish city of Antwerp, De Wever told the party’s supporters: “Antwerp is for everybody, but tonight, especially for us.” A few days later, after winning a World Cup qualifier in Scotland, Kompany tweeted in response: “Belgium is for everybody, but tonight, especially for us!” and was widely seen to have come out the bigger man.

It still bothers the NVA. Kompany is widely expected to enter politics when he retires from football — a symbol of a new, united Belgium. I asked Weyts what he thought of him. “Just hit the ball,” he said. “That’s it. And try to make a goal.”

I got to the stadium about an hour before kickoff. The streets were full of thousands of people in red devil horns and synthetic Afros — a homage to Fellaini — painted in the Belgian tricolor. Between the merchandise, the neatly painted faces, and the thick smell of sausages and French fries, it was impossible to figure out if underneath it all, this long-divided country was finding some unlikely, low-risk way to be happy by way of the globalized, generic code of 21st-century world soccer. I bought a beer and met a Flemish student named Thijs. He seemed to think so: “I know it sounds stupid that football can unite a country, but it’s really happening.” The crowds poured past. Thijs talked about Stromae and Belgitude and, above all, Kompany. “He is a football player,” he said. “But he looks beyond.”

Inside, the Red Devils were going through their familiar drills. Circulation de balle. A Stromae song was playing. On the opposite side of the field, the experienced Ivory Coast team of Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré, another golden generation, long familiar with the weight of hope, warmed up in full-length bright orange tracksuits. We stood, and the crowd made it — I’m not sure how — through the alternating French, Dutch, and German lines of Belgium’s national anthem.

After days of talking about the meaning of Belgian football, it was a relief to just watch the team play. Within a few minutes, the Red Devils got their circulation going. The Afros of Witsel and Fellaini zigzagged up and down the pitch at a more or less constant distance, like atoms connected by an invisible force. Wall passes snapped off Mirallas on the right wing and Dries Mertens on the left, looking to set Benteke through, or to catch De Bruyne sprinting into the play from behind. The Ivorians couldn’t keep track. Fellaini was playing with the freedom of being away from Manchester, and finally, 34 minutes in, he flung himself at a corner and scored a header to give the Red Devils the lead. The crowd, contented but short of a common language, found a perfectly Belgian solution by humming Verdi’s “Triumphal March.” Led by Kompany, whose every tackle and interception was met with cheers, the team played out the half with a swagger.

In the press room, Belgium’s football writers weren’t surprised. Screens showed Belgium’s nine shots on goal to Ivory Coast’s zero. I found Raf Willems eating a pastry. He was there researching his next book. I remembered what he had told me a few days before, about the brand-new, frankly un-Belgian confidence of these players. “Now we want to dominate the game and we want to win the World Cup,” he had said. “They want to win the World Cup! … They became the state of mind for Belgium for the 21st century.” Two minutes into the second half, Benteke missed a gaping chance. But in Belgium’s next attack, the Ivorian keeper couldn’t prevent a savage cross from Radja Nainggolan, the son of an Indonesian father and one of Belgium’s fringe players, from crashing into the net. Two-nil. Everyone began to think about the tougher teams waiting in Brazil.

And then something strange happened. Or maybe, because this was Belgium, it wasn’t strange at all. The game went loose. The tight patterns of the first half began to fray, and suddenly Manchester City’s other star, the Ivorian midfielder Touré, began to pick up the pieces. The visitors’ canny tackles and fouls broke the Belgians’ rhythm. The crowd became distracted. Wilmots sent Eden Hazard on, and he was cut down in a heap on his first touch. Ten minutes later, Didier Drogba scuffed in a goal for Ivory Coast, and the last 15 minutes became nervy and ill-formed. It looked as if the Red Devils, now playing through Hazard, could score at any moment, but also as if they were growing more vulnerable at the same time. Decisions went awry. It was the Vuitton Generation all over again. In the 84th minute, Lukaku and Mertens missed two chances to put the game away. Trumpets blasted nervously from the stands. In injury time, the Belgian defense failed to clear a free kick, and Ivorian winger Max Gradel rolled the equalizer into the corner. The shot was slow, but precise. Courtois didn’t move.

No one knew what to say after the game. It was supposed to be the Red Devils’ triumphant send-off, a warning of what they might achieve this summer. Instead, it brought back familiar doubts about the young team’s seriousness, the abandoning of old virtues, and the unlikeliness of this new and happy Belgium. The stadium emptied quickly. “It was a bit stupid,” Courtois told reporters after the game. “A bit frustrating.” Kompany was calmer. “The first half was under control,” he said. “They didn’t have any chances. That is the benchmark.” It was good that everyone was disappointed. “There is pressure,” Kompany added, “but it’s good pressure.” The captain thanked everyone. He said goodnight, and the players boarded their bus before dispersing again across the continent — back to their billion-dollar clubs, their Champions League showdowns. In a month or two, these glimmering pieces of an unmade nation would reassemble for Brazil. And I walked to the metro, where I found a silent army of confused, face-painted, flag-draped Belgians, waiting for a ride home. 

Sam Knight (@samknightwrites) is a journalist living in London. He writes for the Financial TimesHarper’s, and British GQIllustration by Zoran Lucic.

Filed Under: 2014 World Cup, Soccer, World Cup 2014, Belgium, Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini