Belgium embraces multicultural adventure of World Cup run
Europe Letter: Red Devils’ achievements give country a sense of unity – at least for a while
Jan Vertonghen and Romelu Lukaku of Belgium sing the national anthem ahead of their World Cup semi-final victory over Russia in Saint Petersburg. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
It was not to be. Les Diables Rouges are out, and with them, crashing forlornly, the hopes of this temporarily united nation.
In the end France’s formidable defence choked the life out of Romelu Lukaku, frustrating a team that had brought so much flair and footballing imagination to these finals. Eden Hazard, the team’s captain, after the match ruefully expressed a sense shared by many fans here: “I prefer to lose with this Belgium than win with that France.”
The Red Devils – named in 1906 after Brussels racing driver Camille Jenatzy, renowned for his red beard, and the first to break 100km/h – are both a unique source of national unity in a country deeply divided between Flemish and Walloon communities, and a mirror to that diversity.
Take the language: to the surprise of English players when they met 10 days ago, the Belgians speak English to each other on the pitch and in the dressing room, determined not to privilege either French or Dutch and exclude fellow players.
Lukaku’s is a story of modern multicultural Belgium
Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne is a Dutch speaker from Ghent in Flanders where separatist nationalist parties have been notably subdued about their hopes for the “national” team.
Hazard is a French speaker from Wallonia. In 1998, living in Lille, he sported a French shirt when France won the World Cup, reflecting an ambivalence many Walloons have about their neighbours.
Both men now share starring roles in the English Premier League along with other team members such as goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, defender Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, and Lukaku.
Born in Antwerp in Flanders, of Congolese parents, and raised in French-speaking Brussels, Lukaku is renowned for his fluency in six languages – Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Swahili. Kompany speaks five.
Lukaku’s is a story of modern multicultural Belgium, of inner-city deprivation and struggle, one that has given him an extraordinary drive and determination to escape. He speaks about it in a moving interview on the (ITAL)Players’ Tribune website.
Lukaku remembers exactly when he knew the family was not just poor, but broke. At six, he had returned from school to their home in Mollenbeek for lunch.
“My mum had the same thing on the menu every single day: Bread and milk. When you’re a kid, you don’t even think about it. But I guess that’s what we could afford.” For 10 years, every day.
“Then this one day I came home, and I walked into the kitchen, and I saw my mum at the refrigerator with the box of milk, like normal. But this time she was mixing something in with it. She was shaking it all up, you know? I didn’t understand what was going on.
“Then she brought my lunch over to me, and she was smiling like everything was cool. But I realised right away what was going on.
“She was mixing water in with the milk. We didn’t have enough money to make it last the whole week. We were broke. Not just poor, but broke.”
It meant a life without power, hot water, of “borrowed bread”, and no TV, no Match of the Day. A daily grind. It was when he made a solemn pledge to himself that he was going to do what was necessary to feed his family. He would play for Anderlecht as soon as they would let him. Sixteen, his father said.
And at 16, a few days after his birthday, he played for the first team, and never looked back.
“Every game I ever played was a final. When I played in the park, it was a final. When I played during break in kindergarten, it was a final. I’m dead-ass serious. I used to try to tear the cover off the ball every time I shot it . . . ”
“I wanted to be the best footballer in Belgian history . . . Not good. Not great. The best. I played with so much anger, because of a lot of things . . . because of the rats running around in our apartment . . . because I couldn’t watch the Champions League . . . because of how the other parents used to look at me.
“I was on a mission.
“When I was 12, I scored 76 goals in 34 games.
“I scored them all wearing my dad’s shoes. Once our feet got to be the same size, we used to share.”
Now he plays for Belgium and Manchester United.
“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.
“If you don’t like the way I play, that’s fine. But I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, and Liège and Brussels. I dreamed of playing for Anderlecht. I dreamed of being Vincent Kompany. I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch, and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala, depending on what neighbourhood we’re in.
“We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right?”