Blair Grant on the political context which can explain a variety of footballing problems.
After sixteen months of infighting and constitutional bickering Belgium’s long-standing political impasse is drawing to a close. The country beats even Iraq and Cambodia in the length of time it has been without a solid government, yet the Socialist Elio di Rupo looks set to become the new Prime Minister once a deal is concluded; however like most things in Belgium, a final decision looks set to run and run. The pressure is most certainly on with the heart of Europe even facing the prospect of a downgrade to its already shaky credit rating.
During more than 500 days of political dialogue and brinkmanship a deal is expected soon, one in which will most certainly see self-rule transferred to the francophone Wallonia regions and Dutch speaking Flanders. Di Rupo himself has said: “The Belgium of today will differ greatly from the Belgium of tomorrow”.
It is in football where these divisions are often polarised, particularly when dealing with the identities of the Flemish and Wallonaise. However, most Belgian football fans would argue that football in the country has drawn communities together rather than apart. The importance of this cannot be overlooked, particularly given the current political friction.
But to ignore politics in Belgian football would be naïve. While relations with teams from other regions might be amicable, it should not detract from the inherent problems, particularly in the context of teams where supporters of Flemish and Walloon origin are of the same number.
The Belgian football story really comes into the forefront of Belgian society in the 1960’s. A series of constitutional reforms took place, which moved the country to a disjointed political system, drawn up along cultural and linguistic lines. Many Flemish clubs changed their names from French to Dutch during this period as a direct result of these reforms.
Belgium runs along lines of an emasculated central government attempting to run smoothly with a series of community-based political parties. The analogy also applies to certain Belgian football supporters.
The supremely grounded Flemish support of Racing Genk, a club from the heartland of industrial Flanders, recently abused fans of Standard Liege, a team from the largest metropolitan region in Wallonia, with taunts of, ‘Les Wallons, c’est du caca,’ [Wallons are shit]. The chanting made clear that ideas of separation and differences were still a commonly held viewpoint. The Belgian football federation subsequently fined the club.
Wallonia may have seen changes in its economic role, necessitated by the recognition that it is one of the poorest regions in Western Europe, a fact not lost on the Flemish. Belgian football however has seen no sea change to its powerhouses and with the exception of Standard, the Flemish clubs (notably RSC Anderlecht, a club that has engrained Flemish roots) have long dominated the league.
Club Brugge and Royal Antwerp both attract support from a number of Flemish extremists, particularly that of the Flemish Movements associated right-wing splinter groups: Vlaams Belang, Voorpost and Nationalistische Studentenvereniging. While these supporters are very much in the minority, it does not make their presence any less notable.
This aspect of Flemish nationalism, particularly of that which is part and parcel of the Flemish football clubs and supporters has even gone as far as the mooting of plans to change the Flemish flag, the aim of which would be to increase the feeling of unity within the country.
The flag, which is often on show at football matches - particularly that of Club Brugge - is often seen as a symbol of separation while the recent scenes of Flemish protesters, many of who were affiliated to the Flemish-based clubs of Lierse and Beerschot AC, demanding the break-up of Belgium and waving the yellow and black flags in protest at French-speaking mayors caused outrage across Wallonia.
Kris Peeters, head of the Flemish regional government, said: "Flanders stands for an open and warm society. Sadly, not everybody is convinced," in what was an impassioned plea.
Yet Belgian society – in the main – remains tolerant and culturally flexible, albeit one in which the populace lacks a Belgian national pride and self-confidence. It does not however, lack a national identity. The Flemish and Walloons have more in common than they’d care to admit, as do their respective teams: the best talent being poached from the domestic league.
Belgian football has come a long way in bypassing divisions of race, language and class, even if these identifiable markers remain important. For example, Yves Camille Désiré Leterme, a Flemish Belgian politician and leader of the Christian Democratic Party - itself aligned to right of the political spectrum - is a diehard and unwavering supporter of the predominantly Walloon supported team of Standard Liege.
If this is anything to go by then it’s the state of Belgium, not the Belgian football supporters, with an identity crisis.