The greatest achievement of “Les Diables Rouges” (the Red Devils) is uniting the different states of mind in the streets of Belgium.
I was born in 1980 in Bukavu, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A decade earlier, that city had been known as Costermansville -- a legacy of Belgian colonialism in Congo. During my teenage years, every Friday after school I would join my friends to play soccer. We sweated our hearts out from the first to the final whistle. The mood of the following days were conditioned by the fate of my team: Winning gave me so much joy; I contagiously brought it back home to put smiles on everybody's face. But losing... Oh, boy!
My team was so passionate and innocent back then, but in my adult years I better understood its significance. Playing with Jean-Michel, Yassin, Hiren and Pascal was galvanizing for two reasons. One, our obvious need to constantly win, and, two, the fact that it didn’t matter that we were Congolese, Tunisian, Indian and Belgian. What matters most was our color blindness.
In 1997, I arrived in Belgium. I had to adapt to a new reality in which I was seen as black before anything else. This was alienating and yet, surprisingly, empowering at the same time. That year, I started exploring the complexity of states of mind and that Belgians had different ways of saying Red Devils—“Les Diables Rouges,” “De Rode Duivels” or “Die Roten Teufel.”
When The Red Devils played Brazil in the 2002 World Cup (Brazil won 2-0 with goals from Rivaldo and Ronaldo), I didn't know much about politics and the “compromis à la Belge” (the sort of compromise only Belgians can achieve). Clear or subtle racist acts didn't stop me from meeting inspiring people. Women and men who can accomplish anything. Beside talent, all it takes is a little bit of luck and tremendous dedication. The mix that is reflected in the team managed by Marc Wilmots, who was in that 2002 squad: Athletes as colorful as the Belgians I see everyday outside, but rarely on television.
Apart from the business and controversies surrounding the World Cup, what is left? Emotions. The ones I love sharing with all “Diables Rouges” fans. A communion so full of passion, it makes me a believer.
I believe in the mixed heritage each player carries within. I feel the joyful contagion that places our King in the middle of extraordinary selfies, while our Queen is putting the right names on the faces of scorers Marouane Fellaini (of Moroccan descent), Dries Mertens (Flemish) and Divock Origi (his father is Kenyan).
Take a closer look at each one representing Belgium this year. Whether you are a soccer fan or not, every time a symbol rises to unite all the states of mind; the colorful human beings walking our streets get lifted. Even if it only lasts 90 minutes, the great pride of defending our common points makes us all winners!
*As told to Africasacountry. Nganji Laeh is a Belgian-Congolese artist.