The newspapers have offered plenty of coverage of Belgiums World Cup team--but what about Belgium itself?
  • AFP
  • The newspapers have offered plenty of coverage of Belgium’s World Cup team—but what about Belgium itself?

Television blazed the trail, spicing up its Olympics coverage with heartwarming stories of the arduous treks to glory undertaken by top competitors. Some of these competitors were well worth being introduced to, others not so much. A childhood passed in a snowbound village above the tree line often nurtures more fortitude than personality.

But there’s no such thing as a boring country. Take Algeria. During the telecast of its World Cup match Monday against Germany, an awful lot was made of the scandal of 1982, when the West German and Austrian teams conspired in a 1-0 German victory that qualified both for the elimination round at Algeria’s expense, even though Algeria had beaten West Germany earlier, 2 to 1.

Finally, for Algeria, a chance to get even! As far as ESPN was concerned, it was as if time stood still for 32 years as that northern African nation stewed in its juices. Maybe there’s some truth to that—maybe the highway robbery of ’82 was the one subject on which all Algerians agreed. But Algerians didn’t agree on many other things, including who should run the country, and this debate expressed itself in a civil war from 1992 to 1999 between Muslim fundamentalists who’d been elected to power and army generals who didn’t like those results and staged a coup. More than 100,000 Algerians died in that war.

Then there’s mighty Belgium, challenged Tuesday by the spunky Americans. Could America possibly win? “On paper, Belgium could seem like one of the best sides at the World Cup,” said the Washington Post,. “But under the surface, Belgium appears beatable.” Everyone loves an underdog, and framing the U.S. as the underdog is sometimes not so easy; maybe that’s what discouraged the media from taking too close a look at Belgium. But there’s got to be more to it than soccer and waffles.

As it happens, Belgium is a country the size of South Carolina with a population 1/30th as large as ours, and it’s in serious peril of falling apart. Yahoo Sports posted the sort of story on Belgium that would have been welcome in a Chicago paper. “Belgium citizens unite for soccer team while country’s future is in jeopardy,” was the headline. The story discussed how little French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish-speaking Flanders have in common (aside from soccer, possibly nothing), and contemplated the possibility that the country will simply break up. In 2011 Belgium set a world record when it held national elections and then took 353 days to put together a coalition government to run the country.

I know the World Cup is supposed to be all about the sport. But just as cross-country skiers go home to their villages, nations go home to themselves. And when will millions of Americans next give a hoot about the Belgians? Seize the moment, journalists. Tell us: Who are these people?