BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium is “in” and, suddenly, so may be Belgitude.
French- and Dutch-speaking Belgians have come together to celebrate their national football team, whose 2-1 win over Croatia on Friday secured the Red Devils a place at the 2014 World Cup, their first major international tournament in 12 years.
The team’s success, combined with the crowning of a new king, Philippe, and the naming of the first Belgian since 1977 to win a Nobel prize, has prompted talk of a renewed national identity, dubbed Belgitude.
It has also left some glum faces among those seeking a separate Flemish state, and their party, the N-VA.
Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and members of his coalition government have been keen to ride the Red Devils wave, some tweeting photos of themselves waving the team’s plane off from the tarmac at Brussels airport, for example.
“The morale in the country is rising, and I really hope that it will lead to Belgian unity because we are more powerful together,” said Brussels resident Pascal Grison, speaking at the weekend market on Flagey Square the morning after the win.
The N-VA, the largest party in the federal parliament, has found it hard to share the national joy.
“Those flag colours on the cheeks? I don’t care for the Belgian flag, it leaves me cold,” Jan Peumans, president of the Flemish regional parliament, said in an interview in P-Magazine.
Peumans said he only learned of Belgium’s 2-0 win over Scotland last month in the newspapers, and added he felt sorry for the Scots, who are in the middle of their own identity debate and will hold a referendum on separating from the United Kingdom in 2014.
Belgium has long been split between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, with different education systems and regional policies. The unemployment rate in Wallonia is about twice the level in northern Flanders, where many voters feel they are subsiding the left-wing policies of the south.
Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever, another N-VA leader, told Belgian television he supported the national team because it contained Flemish players, but declined to utter the phrase “I support Belgium” when pressed to do so.
De Wever, like all N-VA politicians, must maintain a delicate balancing act between the minority of Flemish voters who support the party because they genuinely want independence and those who like its contrarian, centre-right views.
“Many who vote N-VA don’t share its separatist agenda at all. In Flanders only a minority of voters want an independent Flanders. It’s bizarre, but you can vote N-VA and be a Red Devils fan,” said Ghent politics professor Carl Devos.
Fons Jena, a 24-year-old in the Flemish town of Overijse, said he was concerned about the effect of the football success on federal and regional elections due next May.
“I fear that it will have a negative effect for the N-VA in the election,” Jena told Reuters. “All of this, including the new king a few months back, is all falling into place for the current government.”
An opinion poll released on Friday showed that support for the N-VA in Flanders had dropped beneath 30 percent for the first time since the 2010 election, although they remain comfortably the region’s largest party.
Dave Sinardet, political scientist at Brussels’ Free University, said although the World Cup was unlikely to be a big factor for the N-VA next year, the national mood was bound to be a concern for the separatist movement.
“It’s annoying for the Flemish separatists that the football team is doing so well,” said Sinardet. “Because no matter which way you look at it, it does create a Belgian national feeling.”
The team itself has stayed out of the debate, but its Brussels-born captain parodied De Wever’s mayoral acceptance speech in which he said “the city was everyone but tonight especially for us”.
After Belgium beat Scotland, Vincent Kompany tweeted: “Proud of my team, proud of our fans, proud of our country.... Belgium is for everyone, but tonight especially for us.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall