Who? France - Belgium
Where? Krestovsky Stadium, St. Petersburg
When? July 10, 20:00 (CET local time)
When thinking about a semi-final between France and Belgium the first thing that might come to mind is the rivalry between them. After all, they have played each other more than 70 times. Their last World Cup meeting was in 1986 in the match for third place. It was the last time Belgium have reached the semi-final of a World Cup. Moreover, besides football, there is some cultural rivalry between both nations. This rivalry is reflected in popular jokes in France about Belgian stupidity, including a whole genre called Belgian jokes. In other fields, people from both nations can still fight over the origin of fries, or about the fact that some national Belgian icons such as Herge and Jacques Brel were adopted and, in a way, “hijacked” by French culture.
All those disagreements are very small at the end of the day. Underneath them lies a truth that might not be very pleasant for some French or Belgians to hear. The truth is that they are very similar in many aspects, and language is not the only one. One field in which the similarities are very vivid is football.
Both teams have gone through similar processes in the last years and their arrival to semi-finals reflects it. These processes can be summed up to three aspects: 1. Long term investment in youth systems and players. 2. Weakness of the local league and export of players to stronger leagues. 3. Inclusion of second-generation immigrants in sports.
As for France, the name of Clairefontaine academy is well known, with former star players such as Anelka and Henry coming from it. In the current French squad several players got their football education there, such as Matuidi, Mbappe and Giroud, all starters in this World Cup. While France is known for years already for youth programs and development of young talents, the Belgian case is a bit more complicated. After suffering from several bad years in the late nineties, the Belgian football federation decided to heavily invest in future football generation. This investment was made through a thoroughly structured plan. The aim was to identify and develop talented players while keeping them in a solid tactical structure staring from early ages. One key element of this plan was to enable young talents to play as much as they can, so they will be able to demonstrate their talents.
This demonstration led to a situation that is common for Belgian and French football. The situation is reflected by the weakness of the local league, which serves as a contrast to the strength of players playing outside their homeland. The best example is seen nowadays in Russia. Only one out of 22 first XI players of Belgium and France in their quarter final matches, Kylian Mbappe, is playing in his local league.
Besides a young generation of world class talents and massive export of this talent outside, Belgian and French football share another important aspect in common. Out of 23 players in each squad, 18 players in France, and 11 players in Belgium belong to different communities of immigrants. In both countries, immigration is a very delicate issue and football reflects it. In France, for example, right wing leader Le Pen criticized Raymond Domenech in 2006 for selecting too many black players. In Belgium, star striker Lukaku admitted that when he was younger he suffered from racism and doubts about his age. Moreover, Lukaku whose father is Congolese, stated that he himself feels that when things are not going so well, suddenly he is no longer referred to as Lukaku the Belgian striker, but Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent.
Therefore, it might not be surprising that one of Lukaku’s best friends is one of his rivals this semi-final, Pogba. Pogba, son of immigrants as well, has suffered from racism in several occasions, including in France itself due to his immigrant and Muslim background. But like Lukaku, he represents a new generation of players who are not ashamed of their origins.
Lukaku and Pogba serve as a good reflection of football in Belgium and France. They emerged as young talents in their countries, benefited from high-quality training programs and went as young kids to play outside their country. Furthermore, as second-generation immigrants, they represent the impact football has on society in France and Belgium. As two high profile stars for their national teams, they represent the process each country has made with its football as well as common processes in both countries. But more than everything, they are a symbol for both nations that after a long period of waiting and preparing, their future starts now.