World Cup: why Belgians don’t want to see France win?

While the Blues are in finale of the World Cup, anti-French sentiment is making a comeback. A manifestation of football nationalism with Belgian sauce.

The France team during the match against Morocco at the World Cup, in Qatar on December 14, 2022 ©BelgaImage

This Wednesday, the French were in heaven. By beating the valiant Moroccan team, the Blues won their ticket to the final against Argentina. If they win this last match, they will accomplish the feat of winning the World Cup twice in a row.

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But in Belgium, part of the press is obviously not happy with this result. La Libre, la DH and Het Laatste Nieuws headline a France “always so cynical” against Morocco, with a clearly negative judgment of their 2-0 victory against the Atlas Lions. After the match, RTL Info asked itself the following question: “Is France too ugly to be in the final?“. On his set, the journalist Marc Delire defends France but the former Belgian footballer Thomas Chatelle does just the opposite. For him, the Blues represent a team “without plume“. It also reminds the scar of the Belgium-France match from four years ago. “In 2018, it was the most boring team“, he says.

What explains such antipathy towards France? To find out, we interviewed Vincent Yzerbyt, professor of social psychology at UCLouvain.

The Belgian “Schadenfreude”

According to the New Louvanist teacher, several factors can explain this type of reaction. First of all, there is what social psychology calls “Schadenfreude”, that is to say the pleasure of the misfortune of others. Following the defeat of the Red Devils against the Blues in 2018, this one is particularly strong today. “This liability persists and this remains very much in mind, even today without there being a France-Belgium confrontation.“, he explains.

Studies show that Schadenfreude occurs especially vis-à-vis a person or a group who deprived us of something that was dear to us. It is thus found during confrontations between two particular groups, for example in the case of nations. I think I can say that if Morocco had been able to win during the meeting with France, many Belgians would have found considerable satisfaction there, without being mean“.

A rivalry linked to the proximity between countries

Studies show more broadly that football is particularly conducive to Schadenfreude. This is even stronger when it concerns two close countries which continually clash, which is the case of the relationship between France and Belgium. “Over the course of victories and defeats, a history is built between the two nations“, notes Vincent Yzerbyt. He also judges that this anti-French feeling “is surely stronger on the side of French-speaking Belgians than Dutch-speaking“.”The latter will for their part be more keen to highlight the matches against the Netherlands. There is always an identity issue, which would not be the case during a Belgium-Peru match for example“.

Would the challenge for the Belgians therefore simply be to remember their nationality? In other words, is this their way of saying “We are not French” or “Dutch”? “It is certain that these events exacerbate the differences and the similarities“, says the academic. “But it should be noted that this often only lasts the time of a competition. Once this is over, we put on other identity costumes. This behavior is intrinsic to human beings. If Belgium had been in the final, we would all be waving our Belgian costumes. But today, with the national demonstration, we will rather see people coming together behind this or that union banner, with the same vigor and the same enthusiasm. We take on successive roles“.

The festive nationalism of football

This ephemeral nature of the feeling of identity provoked by sport has also struck other researchers. This is the case of sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky. He speaks, for example, of a “festive nationalism” aroused by football, temporary and compatible with the notion of individualism. Vincent Yzerbyt prefers for his part to speak of “social identities that regulate a person’s behavior: how we feel, what we think about the world around us, etc.“.”There are loads of social psychology studies that show people identify with their national team, with phrases like ‘We won’, when all we did was drink a glass of beer while watching a match. We also see that people wear the colors of their team more often when it wins and less when it loses. This shows that this attachment is linked to the success and prestige of this same team.“, he explains. He also points to the particular case of dual nationals, for whom the question arises of supporting one team or the other.

But does football elicit this kind of “festive nationalism” easier than other sports? Obviously yes, but it depends on the country. Vincent Yzerbyt cites for example the attachment to cricket in South Asia, or to American football in the USA. In Europe and in a good part of the world, “classic” football prevails. According to the UCLouvain professor, this passion for football in our country is linked “to the media collision on a social level, with all-day broadcasts on the subject“. For him, if the media gave the same visibility to another sport, there would be the same type of strong complicity as with football.

Another interesting point: this “festive nationalism” has not always provoked the same type of reaction as today. “There is an evolution linked to the codes associated with belonging to the group. When I was growing up, no one was waving in stadiums or honking their horns in the streets after a football victory. It was expressed differently“, recalls Vincent Yzerbyt. “I think these behaviors are inherited from other countries that acted in this way, via the media and the compatibility with this festive spirit“. For example, the first olas would have been born in the USA, at the turn of the 1980s, before spreading throughout the world, in particular with that of the France-Brazil match during the 1984 Olympics which marked the spirits by mobilizing nearly 100,000 people.

Football, a good opportunity to unite a country

Belgium is therefore not the only country to succumb to the “festive nationalism” of football and this creates rivalries other than France-Belgium. Of course, this can take different forms. The French probably have less of this feeling of being in conflict with the Belgians, while on the contrary, the latter have more of a relationship”of David against Goliath“, believes Vincent Yzerbyt. Nevertheless, according to him, we can identify a France-Germany rivalry or another France-England, as was seen in the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup. Examples of the genre are not lacking. There is the mythical confrontation between Argentina and Brazil, or that between Portugal and Spain for example. The constituent nations of the United Kingdom are in the same pattern, with this particularity that each has his own team.

This is also how nations create their legitimacy“, recalls the UCLouvain professor. “If football has this aura, it is also because the leaders of the different countries find their account in it. Just look at how Jacques Chirac capitalized on the French victory in 1998. This was also seen at the Olympic Games in the rivalry between the USA and the USSR, then between the United States and China. Soft power also involves sport“.

A football that unites Belgium

This nationalism also benefits football teams who want to maintain this feeling. This is what emerges, for example, from an interview with Slate by Benjamin Goeders, head of marketing at the Belgian Union: “The Red Devils are part of the values ​​that we all have in our DNA, like chocolate or waffles. […] We don’t do politics, it’s not our role, but it’s true that the more we give the impression that Belgium is arguing, tearing itself apart, the more people dress in black, yellow, red…“, he admits.

Vincent Yzerbyt confirms it: the red devils are today clearly part of the national identity. This can be seen again this year when the king collaborates with the football team to publish a video on the occasion of the World Cup. But there is also the desire of the population to remember that there are more similarities than differences between Dutch speakers and French speakers. “Now there are also those who do not share this position and who would dream of having a separation of teams like in the United Kingdom“The fact remains that today, Belgium remains united behind the Red Devils. A close-knit team that needs its traditional French and Dutch rivals to oil its machine.

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World Cup: why Belgians don’t want to see France win?

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