Belgium: One team, divided nation

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SAO PAULO (AP) - A group of French-speaking fans were looking for a cab to go to Belgium’s World Cup game. Coming from the other direction on the famed Avenida Paulista, Flemish-speaking fans were loudly looking for lunch. They crossed each other, listened - looked at one another’s Belgian red shirts, and suddenly it was high fives and thumbs up.

It was the sporting spirit of Sao Paulo, which is all too rarely the political spirit of the Belgian capital Brussels.

For a country in the political throes of separatism, the World Cup is providing almost a surreal glue of unity. When Belgium’s motto “L’Union fait la force - union makes strength,” is increasingly turned into “L’Union fait la farce - Unity is the joke,” the performance of the national team is lost on no one - in Brazil or at home.

And it should not be lost on the United States too, the next opponent in an increasingly successful World Cup campaign.

“My players will give everything for Belgium,” said coach Marc Wilmots, a former senator who has defended the concept of a united nation.

Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, a staunch Francophone defender of Belgium in the face of the rising Flemish nationalist N-VA party, is loving every minute of the rise of the Red Devils, especially Tuesday’s match against the United States.

“Hey @BarackObama, I am betting some great Belgian beers that our @BelRedDevils will make it to the quarter final! :-),” he Tweeted after Thursday’s 1-0 victory over South Korea.

The political divisions back home make the U.S. motto at the tournament “One Nation. One Team.” almost a taunt to Belgians.

While the Belgian political arena is carefully divided down to the last parliamentary seat among the 6.5 million Dutch-speakers from northern Flanders and 4.5 million Francophones from the south, the national team is a mix of languages where a tally of how many Flemings and Francophones has become a thing of the past.

Even Wilmots represents that unity because he is a Francophone married to a Fleming.

The division between sports and politics could not be starker these days. While the national team keeps winning and the black-yellow-red flags are waved in unison, Belgian politics has again stumbled into crisis.

Elections last month made the regionalist N-VA party even bigger in Flanders and predictably, government negotiations are bogged down in fundamental contradictions between north and south. Four years ago, elections spawned a record 541 days - yes, 1 ½ years - of negotiations before Di Rupo came became premier.

Di Rupo is from poorer Wallonia, which traditionally leans in favor of national unity because the region would likely find it difficult to survive on its own economically. The N-VA has traditionally campaigned on a platform that Wallonia is a burden to Flanders, preventing it realizing its economic potential.

At the World Cup, such things are scoffed upon.

“We still don’t have a government yet. We don’t care. We will keep the country united,” said Nicolas Lombaerts, the central defender during the victory over South Korea. And the fans think exactly like that.

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