Sports

How one American in Brussels is dealing with the upcoming World Cup clash between the US and Belgium

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Credit: Clark Boyd

Even Belgium's Smurfs have caught Red Devil fever

I blame Belgium for this mess.

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And by this mess, I mean sitting here in my favorite Brussels bar staring at a shot of Kentucky bourbon and a Trappist beer chaser, dipping another "freedom fry" into mayo, and desperately trying to decide what the hell I'm going to do on Tuesday night when Belgium clashes with the US in the World Cup.

The Red, White and Blue versus the Red Devils. Sly Stallone versus Jean Claude van Damme. My passport versus my glass of Rochefort 10.

Honestly, I knew this was a possibility based on the World Cup draw, but what were the chances it would go down like this? 

Nevertheless here I am, trying to relax my way through a summer vacation in Belgium, when all of the sudden I am truly going to have to choose a side.

How un-American, you might say. Why would I even consider supporting Belgium over the US, particularly when the stakes are so high? I mean, no more of this group stage stuff where a tie is almost as good as a win, and you can progress in the tournament even if you lose. 

This is the real, American deal now. Win or go home. 

U-S-A! U-S-A!! Right?

And yet, here's Belgium, tugging at my affections. Why, oh why? 

As with most things Belgian, let me put it this way: it's complicated. And it's not all about the beer, or about my unspoken love of every film ever made starring the "Muscles from Brussels."

First of all, I lived and worked in Brussels from 2010 to 2012.

Whenever I mention this in conversation, I usually get either wry smiles, or simple shoulder shrugs. 

A couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about trying to find an official Belgian soccer jersey in Boston, a salesperson actually asked me, "What's Belgium?"

I maintain that it's an excellent question. 

I will be the first to admit Belgium's a strange place, with its linguistic divides; its rampant, multi-layered bureaucracy; its tendency toward surrealism.

When people asked me how I liked living here, I usually gave them my standard line: the place is difficult to love, but impossible to hate. And after a year or so, I did begin, grudgingly, to fall in love with the place. Once you figure it out (and by figure it out, I mean stop trying to figure it out), it starts to get under your skin.

And that's why, when I realized Belgium's plucky little soccer team was headed to Brazil, I jumped on the Belgian bandwagon.

I say "plucky little" soccer team, but let's not fool ourselves. Some of the best soccer talent in Europe right now comes from this place. Belgian players are currently filling out rosters in top flight teams across the continent and in Britain. Some here are calling it a new "golden generation" of Belgian soccer. 

In the run up to the World Cup, analysts of all stripes tapped the Belgian squad as the tournament's "dark horse." I'm not sure I ever really bought that notion, given the talent this team possesses, at least on paper.

Ah yes. On paper.

On the field, the Belgians won all three of their group games. But the goals always seemed to come in the waning minutes, after a lot of "uninspired football," as they say around here.

It's reminscent of the entire country to be honest.

I mean, on paper Belgium's devolved system of government should work too, by somehow pleasing every manner of Flemish, French and German speaker with various levels of federal, regional and local control. And yet the reality is that the country is, once again, without a federal government after the last round of elections. Negotiations to fix this are ongoing, and by that I mean inching along at a snail's pace.

"C'est la Belgique," say some Belgians with a shrug, while others groan and offer up: "Dit is België."

But the Belgian soccer success in Brazil seems to be putting the language feuds and confusing politics out of people's minds, at least for a while.

Coming into the capital on the train from Amsterdam, you pass a Brussels' landmark called The Atomium. It's a towering sculpture consisting of a series of enormous steel balls connected by tunnels (like an atom, get it?) that you can walk through. 

And the top-most sphere? It's currently painted to look like a gigantic soccer ball, complete with the colors of the Belgian flag: black, yellow and red.  

I keep getting emails from Belgian friends expressing a pride in the team that I have never heard them express for the country itself.

And when I went into the shop to buy some candy for my daughter, I noticed that even M&Ms have gotten into the act, offering a special World Cup edition in black, yellow and red.

Look up as you walk the streets here, and you'll see that many balconies are flying national flags, presumably more in support of the soccer team than in any of the country's various political parties.

Many of those flags, by the way, also have the word Jupiler scrawled across them. Think of Jupiler as the Belgian version of Budweiser. 

Oh, and when you're hoisting that good old American Bud in support of the US Tuesday night, remember that it's owned by a giant Belgian drinks conglomerate called AB-InBev, which also happens to own — wait for it — Jupiler. At least we know there will be one sure winner on Tuesday.

This morning, on the eve of the big clash, the Belgian papers led mostly with soccer analysis from Brazil. Below the fold? That was reserved for the seemingly inevitable news that there will be a national rail strike today.

The soccer experts are wondering if the Belgian team can project the same kind of power on the pitch that it does on paper. 

A lot of ink and pixels are also actively wondering when, where, why and how America suddenly became a soccer force to be reckoned with. 

"Why is 'le foot' a hit in the United States?" queries one headline. 

My French is a bit rusty, but a quick glance through the article seemed to imply that while it was OK to mock the US team (and its fans for their ignorance of the sport) in the past, those days are now well and truly gone. The US team, the article says, is a worthy and dangerous opponent for The Red Devils, despite the fact that it lacks a "mega-star" on par with some of the European and South American players.

You can see why I'm so torn. I am happy and proud the US team is now competitive in the one truly global sport.

In fact, earlier in the day, I had decided that blood is thicker than water, and that I would cheer the US come Tuesday no matter what. You gotta represent, right? Plus, I was having a devil of a time finding that elusive official Belgian soccer jersey, even here in Belgium.

And then, as I took the bus through my old Brussels neighborhood, I passed by one of my favorite sporting goods stores. 

Outside, a mannequin was dressed in the official Belgium team kit: jersey, shorts, a flag draped around its shoulders, and a black, yellow and red wig on its head. 

Classy.

I rang the bell immediately, and hopped off the bus. I rushed back to the store, and in broken French I asked the salesperson if they had any of those jerseys left.

"Just the one on the mannequin," she said. 

"What size is it?" I asked.

"Extra large," she said.

American-sized, I thought to myself with a smile. Perfect.

A minute later, I had her taking the arms off the mannequin, pulling the jersey over its head, and handing it to me.

My credit card was already out, and soon I was too quickly and too easily parting with $100.

The salesperson looked at me like I was crazy, as I kept giving her the thumbs up, muttering "excellent" and smiling like the deranged foreigner I sometimes am here.

The truth is that the Belgian team is a lot like the country for me: difficult to love, impossible to hate.

I have apparently made my decision.

And in case you were wondering, the answer is a resounding "yes."

If the jersey didn't fit, I was going to buy the wig.

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