The second the final whistle blew, I collapsed. For the last 20 minutes I had known it was inevitable, that our attacks were futile, but I clung to belief anyway. Now all hope had been taken from me. Everything felt meaningless. I held my knees and buried my head in them. I was totally inconsolable. That was it. Ninety-seven minutes of football had elapsed and my country was out of the world cup. No last counter-attack, no final long ball, no desperate shot from distance, no second chances. Belgium are on the plane home.
The days leading up to the semi-final were some of the best I had ever had. Putting aside the fact that I’d just gotten my high school diploma, the football side of things was also pretty good. We had beaten Brazil, my logical favourites for the world cup, in the quarter finals and it felt like nothing could stop us. I hadn’t even started thinking about France yet, all I could think about was that I’d just witnessed history in the making. Thirty-two years after my then 18-year old father watched Belgium qualify for the last 4 of the world cup for the first time in our history, so did 18-year old me by my father’s side. Because of the golden generation, it’s easy to look at Belgium today and forget what we used to be and why this felt like history.
I grew up never having seen Belgium at an international tournament. Ever. It was pathetic. We only qualified for Euro 2000 because we co-hosted it and we barely snuck into the 2002 World Cup, where we were tourists more than competitors. Even then, I was way too young to be aware of either. I’d have to wait another 12 years til we actually got this “golden generation” of ours. When my english mates were watching their country at the world cup in 2010, I was accepting that we weren’t going because we’d lost qualification games to Armenia and Estonia. We were nothing worth being proud of.
The tale gets sadder the further you step back from the frame. I have to bring myself to admit that Belgium isn’t a very coherent country. We have 3 different languages, 6 different governments, 2 national TV stations and a billion reasons not to be a united country. We do however have one good reason in favour of being one – 11 blokes in red shirts running riot on the football pitch. There’s no feeling more stirring than national unity- feeling one with millions of others, and for a country that’s constantly bickering with itself, football brings us something else.
Watching Belgium reach the semi-finals of the world cup for the second time ever truly was history. It felt like we finally deserved it. After having spent my entire life looking at the ground whenever my mates talked about international football, it felt like we finally deserved a moment to make millions of people proud. A glorious moment where all felt right. A certainty that was slowly and agonisingly ripped out of my hands as I watched us get taken apart. I kept reminding myself we had beaten Brazil and that we were finally defying all the odds that had challenged us until today. But it was no use. I could scream and shout at the TV or put my mind to understand why we were losing but instead I just sat there, mute. I couldn’t really comprehend it. My dreams were being taken away from me.
I wanted to be alone when the game ended. I cried quite a bit and I got angry and I cursed at god for making this happen to me. We had lost so many times before but this time was heartbreaking. That’s when I said it. “I hate football”. It suddenly seemed so logical. I’d never watched Liverpool win anything important and I’d never seen Denmark or Belgium do anything noteworthy. The heartbreak and sorrow I’d endured throughout the years outbalanced the joy and ecstasy a million to one, so why did I keep watching? Why did I keep giving this game so much when I never, ever got anything back?
The answer is that I don’t know. Nobody does. Every year there’s only ever one winner of the champions league, of the premier league, of the world cup, of the euros, etc, etc. Every team goes but one goes home with their heads hung. Year after year, tournament after tournament. Football is a cruel sport. But it makes us feel alive. Those moments where you feel at one with your fellow countrymen are completely incomparable. Screaming your lungs out when your team scores a winning goal or keeps a shot out to win a game is a feeling I’ve yet to feel elsewhere. Football is so much emotion packed in so tight, it gives us feelings like nothing else in life. It helps us make friends, it makes us feel together with family, it makes us laugh, it makes us shout in anger, it makes us grin like fools and it makes us cry. But most of all it gives us all that without us having to do anything. Through football we experience emotions we wouldn’t experience elsewhere. We feel a sense of belonging. And while football may forever remain a net loss emotionally, that’s life.
God has given us football, so let’s just watch it and experience what being human feels like.