Elko Born looks at the impact Belgian footballers have had on the historical, cultural rivalry between Belgium and The Netherlands…
‘It still gives me a stomach ache,’ FC Twente’s chairman Joop Munsterman recently told Elf Voetbal, reminiscing about the 15th of May 2011: the day Ajax beat Twente 3-1 in a thrilling, last day of the season title decider.
How different it must have been for Ajax’s fans and players. By beating Twente 3-1, Ajax didn’t just win the title, they won their first title in seven years, a nightmare inducing low haul for Ajax’s high (and according to many, arrogant) standards. Low especially because throughout all those years, Ajax needed just one more title in order to place a long sought after ‘third star’ on their red and white jerseys.
The Ajax fans wanted that third star. They were prepared to go to war that third star. To kill for it even.
By clinching that thirtieth title (you get a star for every ten championships), Belgian international Jan Vertonghen, who had been an Ajax player since the age of 16, finally fulfilled the role everyone had long expected of him and his highly rated young teammates. If Vertonghen had a stomach ache, he would have had it before the match, not after it.
While Ajax’s historic 30th title may have represented the realisation of a prophecy, becoming champions of The Netherlands with his teammates was what Vertonghen really wanted as well. Look back now at the scenes of him losing it moments after the final whistle: not a single Ajax fan will ever forget that cocktail of joy, euphoria, aggression and pent-up frustration exploding from Vertonghen’s face. Indeed, you could even say that, to this generation of Ajax fans at least, Jan Verthonghen is a hero, a legend, a demigod.
And Jantje isn’t the only Belgian popular with the Ajax crowd. Although he never won a title, Thomas Vermaelen was a fan favourite as well. Toby Alderweireld – another international from over the border who has recently moved on to Atletico Madrid – was popular too. Meanwhile, over in Alkmaar, Moussa Dembélé (who played for AZ before he played for Fulham and Spurs) captured a heart or two. In Overijssel, in the east of The Netherlands, Nacer Chadli (formerly of FC Twente) was the man of the moment for almost three years.
A lot of these players were exciting, their style of play as pleasing to the eye as a Wappers painting. Vertonghen, for example, played as a forward stomping libero in his last year at Ajax, steamrolling through defences and scoring goals like an attacking midfielder. At Twente, Chadli played as a winger and a playmaker, demonstrating the best first touch of the Eredivisie almost every week. At AZ, Dembélé was every type of midfielder conceivable, all at the same time.
All these players who made their mark in The Netherlands and Belgian footballers became loveable and cool. While Berlin became hip because of its techno music and the need for having authentic experiences in postmodern times, Belgium has become hip because of its awesome footballers. Similarly, while the youth culture of the UK had The Beatles in the 60s and punk in the 70s, The Netherlands had Johann Cruyff and Totaalvoetbal.
But Belgium being cool in The Netherlands, that’s quite a remarkable development, when you think about it. Culturally speaking, the last time the two countries were on such friendly terms was almost 200 years ago, when the Congress of Vienna decided to found the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1815. Back then Belgium and what we know today as The Netherlands were one country. That lasted until 1830, when the Belgians rebelled and claimed independence within months.
Ever since there’s been quite the rivalry between the two low countries. In The Netherlands, the assumption that every Belgian is of low intelligence became the backbone of any joke that was told. In some parts of Belgium, Dutchmen were shunned from bars and other public places because they were deemed overtly loud, arrogant and obnoxious.
And maybe the Dutch really were a little bit arrogant. They certainly enjoyed beating Belgium twice in the World Cup ’98 qualifiers, and most people were genuinely amazed to see Oranje fail to beat their Southern rivals during the group phase of the tournament as well – Patrick Kluivert, who elbow-shoved Lorenzo Staelens and was sent off, included.
When Belgium’s political problems culminated in a full blown crisis in 2007, the Dutch began to talk about how great it would be to (politcally) reunite with the long lost brother, or at least the Duch speaking region of Flanders. If you would have told Kluivert and Staelens about this sentiment in 1998, they would have probably tried to get you sectioned.
But that was a different era. Nowadays, a United Federation of the Low Countries might just be feasable, at least culturally. But Vertonghen and Dembélé, rather than the arrogant Dutch prime minister or one of those dumb Belgian politicians, would have to be consuls.