“I think that diversity is probably the biggest weapon that we have in our dressing room. You always get different views, different solutions.”
Roberto Martinez, Belgium national football team manager
Belgium’s position on the European map, wedged between France, Germany and the Netherlands and with a number of valuable sea ports, made it a place of conflict for much of the past 500 years. Over the centuries, this country became known as the Battlefield of Europe.
Today, though, a commitment to diversity is fuelling a far more welcome reputation. The Belgium men’s football team has been ranked number one in the world since 2015, and on Saturday their campaign to win a first major tournament got off to a flying start.
After a 3-0 win over Russia, manager Roberto Martinez’s comments on his team’s collective strength struck a chord. This is a country of cultural and linguistic diversity. You can be wary of that or you can embrace it. There’s no doubt which approach delivers better results, and not just on the football pitch.
Belgium is home to three distinct linguistic communities. Flemings in the north, who make up a majority of Belgians, speak the Dutch-influenced Flemish. Walloons in the south, around one third of the population, speak French. And there’s a smaller but significant group of German speakers in the east.
Two decades ago this led to a curious stand-off between two of Belgium’s greatest sports stars. Tennis players Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters won eleven grand slam singles titles between them and both took turns at the top of the women’s world rankings. Henin, born in Liège, spoke French. Clijsters, born in Limburg, spoke Flemish. Their relationship was frosty, and when they played together in team events communication was strained. The answer? Each of these gifted women expanded their linguistic horizons and became fluent in English. Not for the first time and not for the last, multilingualism built a bridge, and when Belgium won the Federation Cup in 2001 they celebrated as a team.
On Saturday evening Belgium’s attack was led by a man who has become a symbol of his country’s success and its inclusiveness.
Romelu Lukaku’s two goals against Russia brought his total for Belgium to 62. Born in Antwerp to Congolese parents, he grew up with neighbours of Moroccan, Turkish, Spanish and Italian heritage. He quickly learned the value of multiculturalism, and also the value of money. At the age of six Lukaku vowed to his mother that he would use his talent for football to change their lives.
At 16 he was top scorer in the Belgian Pro League, his goals firing Anderlecht to the league title. At 28 he is the leading goalscorer in his country’s history, spearheading a challenge for a trophy that would be celebrated by speakers of three official tongues, thirteen official dialects and a dozen more languages that add to the rich tapestry of Belgian life.
As well as working tirelessly on his ball skills and fitness, Lukaku readied himself to succeed at a global sport by becoming fluent in French, Dutch, English, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish. He also speaks Congolese Swahili and can communicate passably in German. When he ran to the camera to pay tribute to his friend Christian Eriksen on Saturday night, sharing a heartfelt message of support for a man who had been taken to hospital just a few hours earlier, Lukaku could have spoken in any number of languages. Personally, I’m flattered that he chose English.
On Saturday, Romelu Lukaku and Belgium spoke to the world. They shared a message of strength in diversity, reminding us that there’s a brand of nationalism that unites and inspires.
A Belgian win at Euro 2021 would be celebrated in many languages. And with all due respect to the Three Lions, some of us will be cheering very loudly for them in English. Cheering for a team that passes the ball quickly and intelligently, showing connectivity that makes them greater than the sum of their considerable parts. Cheering for players of different ethnicities who channel multiple languages into a single, eloquent voice. Cheering for a centre forward who found his motivation every day, not just on Mondays, in the love of a family and the embrace of a national team.
Komm schon Belgien