Thursday, 31 March 2011

Belgian football's colonialist history, and its bright, non-colonialist future

When one thinks of the European colonisation of Africa, thoughts are immediately evoked of the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique, the French across North Africa, the English and Dutch battling Zulus and each other for control of the vast South African Kraal. Sometimes one can even recall tales of the Italians marching in and out of Ethiopia repeatedly for centuries. Spain preferred to focus on Latin America, and reap its own benefits from that fertile continent. However, throughout this list, one 19th century European superpower was missing. Missing, because it is often not regarded as a superpower, in fact I was probably misleading you by calling it a superpower, we’re thinking 1830s here, and Germany as we know it didn’t exist. I’m talking about Belgium. Belgium didn’t merely conquer a small, hidden-away corner of Africa, it conquered the great beating heart, the Congo.

Belgian dominance in the Congo was widely-regarded as the most sadistic of all contemporary colonialist regimes. Moreover, Congo’s neighbouring colony, Rwanda, Belgium’s open preference for Tutsis in power, as opposed to Hutus led to the genocide in 1994, as years of resentment between Rwanda’s two tribes exploded in a dreadful massacre of 800,000 Tutsis. A century earlier, in the Congo, King Leopold’s desire to possess and control all of the Congo’s vast raw minerals led to the deaths of millions of Congolese in labour camps. To demonstrate the harshness of Leopold’s rule, the tale of him cutting hands off manual labourers for not working hard enough is often told. It seems therefore ironic, that Belgium nowadays should be such a hotbed, breeding ground and home for so many talented African footballers.

Colonisation in football seems often too little discussed. Where would France be without its generations of talented African footballers? From Zidane, through Vieira, represented today by the reborn Benzema, all of whom grew up in France, but, had it not been for French imperialistic dominance of North and West Africa, their footballing talents would have aided African sport, not European sport, instead. Indeed, what would the Real Madrid side of the ‘50s look like without Di Stefano? Or the famous Dutch teams without Kluivert, Gullit, or Riijkard? Portugal without Eusebio? The terrible tales and deeds of European colonisation of Africa and Southern America, perversely, seem still to benefit and enhance European football hugely. The colonised, after independence, are prepared to make home in the land of their colonisers.

The award of the “Ebony Shoe” to Everton’s Marouane Fellaini in 2008, then of Standard Liege, sparked my interest in the exoticism and self-awareness of Belgian football’s African heritage. The “Ebony Shoe” is an annual award given to the best African player, or player of African descent in the Belgian Pro League. Reading through a list of winners since the award’s inception in 1992 is similar to reading a list of some of Europe’s most successful African footballers, the majority of whom have graduated the Jupiler League after recognition in the form of the award and gone onto play in more lucrative leagues: Daniel Amokachi, Celestine Babayaro, Emile Mpenza, Mido, Aruna Dindane, Vincent Kompany, and Fellaini himself. The exception seems to be Mbark Boussofa, who was Anderlecht’s loyal left-sided midfielder until his move to Anzhi Makhachkala, but reaped the rewards of his now-dubious loyalty by being honoured with the award three times, the most in the award’s short history.

But why Belgium? Language helps. French being widely-spoken in Belgium means that north or west Africans with French as their first language, who would find it too tough to break into the physical Ligue Un immediately on arrival in Europe, feel comfortable in Belgium, and sign for clubs there, most of whom have scouting links and initiatives across Europe and Africa (Double Club intitative, Beveren’s links with Arsenal for starters). Those to have launched their careers in Belgium, and to have used it as an entry league for more prosperous European leagues, include Didier Drogba, Emmanuel Eboue, Cheik Tiote, Gervinho, Peter Odemwingie, and Joseph Yobo. Moreover, although once a concern that the sheer number of incoming foreign players would harm the national side (clearly a fallacy anyway, the greatest Belgian footballer of all time, Enzo Scifo was of Italian parentage) colonial history and Belgium’s status as an ‘entry league’, as well as its close geographical and colonial links with France, have proved beneficial for a national side enjoying a renaissance, spearheaded (both literally and metaphorically!) by Romelu Lukaku, of Congolese descent, but supported by a host of players with interestingly varied African origins, Marouane Fellaini (Morrocco), Vincent Kompany (Congolese), Nacer Chadli (Morrocco), Moussa Dembele (Mali), Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe (Ghana), Axel Witsel (Martinique) as well as traditionally ethnic Belgians such as Steven Defour, Eden Hazard, and Jan Vertonghen.


  1. Very interesting piece. Keep up the great work.


  2. The issue with Leopold II was that he owned the Congo as a private fief - the Belgian people looked on aghast at his exploitation (he even brought some 'negroes' home for his menagerie),until they finally confiscated it from him.

    Nice piece though Daniel - drawing links and displaying elements that might otherwise not be highlighted.

    It is especially interesting to note that, without colonisation, they probably wouldn't be playing football in the first place!