The success of their “Red Devils” is a rare rallying point for soccer-mad Belgium, otherwise deeply divided between its Flemish-speaking north and a Francophone south ahead of general elections next year.
Starved of success since reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 1986, a golden generation of players featuring such stars as Eden Hazard, who plays for Chelsea and Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany, jointly lead their group with Croatia on the qualifying road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
On Tuesday, manager Marc Wilmots’ team beat Macedonia 1-0 in Brussels before an enthusiastic and boisterous crowd of 47,000 who made no distinction between Flemish or French, cheering on their team.
“We have had a lot of political conflicts in Belgium in recent years, but I can see that soccer brings everyone together,” said one Flemish supporter. “We are all the same and we are all here to support the Belgian team.”
The World Cup in Brazil opens on June 12, next year, just two weeks after general elections scheduled for May 25 which are shaping up to be divisive, with some Flemish nationalists pressing for as much distance as possible from the south and its socialist ways.
If the national team, however, qualifies for Brazil, the players will be making their final preparations just as the election campaign unfolds, cutting across the political rhetoric as supporters of both persuasions get behind their team.
That may make calculating the political odds even more difficult than last time around in 2010. After polls that year, the country’s north-south divide prevented the formation of a government for 500 days, with an interim administration left in charge.
For the team itself and manager Wilmots — who enjoys support from both communities — the political backdrop can color everything they say.
In October after beating Scotland, Wilmots called on his fellow-countrymen to “remain united” while Kompany, the captain, said: “Belgium is for everybody, but this evening, it is for us.”
That remark drew considerable attention, being taken as a direct riposte to the Flemish nationalist leader, Bart De Wever who a few days earlier had said, “Antwerp is for everybody, but this evening, it is for us,” as he won local polls for mayor of Belgium’s second largest city and its commercial heart.
“Me, I play with my Belgian colleagues, I don’t play with my Flemish colleagues,” said Hazard, from the French-speaking south, in a pointed remark about his commitment to his teammates.
However much is made of the backing for the national team, political analysts are cautious about what impact it might have on the polls.
Dave Sinardet, a Flemish-speaker, said he was far from sure it would dent support for De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), currently polling around 35 percent to 40 percent in Flanders.
“You can very well be a great supporter of the national soccer team, but still vote for the N-VA,” Sinardet said.
“Not all those supporting the N-VA are separatists or anti-Belgium or want an independent Flanders. There are many who vote N-VA because of the party’s free-market liberalism and its anti-tax stand,” he said.
On the other side, the upturn in national sentiment as the team advances is an opportunity not to be missed.
Socialist Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a French-speaker, wore a scarf in the Belgian national colors as he chaired a Cabinet meeting the day of the Macedonia match.
The monarchy, which has run into some criticism in the past from the N-VA, was not slow either to make the point.
“This national team, it’s formidable for Belgium,” Crown Prince Philippe said as he left the stadium on Tuesday after the match.