An unseemly Twitter row, rare for the high profiles involved, between England footballer Jack Wilshere and cricketer Kevin Pietersen, brought out into the open the issues of nationality, ethnicity and sporting identity. The only people who should play for England are English people, said Wilshere, prompting the South Africa-born Pietersen to ask how one woud define “foreigner" and whether it would apply to himself and his England teammates Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior, and to the celebrated long-distance runner Mo Farah.

Wilshere’s tweet—he subsequently backed down, though not before showing that footballers can deviate from their PR-scripted public lives—came in the backdrop of speculation over whether the precocious footballer Adnan Januzaj would choose England, where he currently plays club football, as the country to represent at the international level. Born in Belgium, Januzaj, still in his teens, can choose from half a dozen countries, including Serbia and Albania, thanks to his parentage and various domiciles. England covets him, and he has already informally resisted one offer from Belgium to avoid being tied down.

It’s probably one snub Belgian football can afford, given its vast reserves of talent, a mix of rough and polished diamonds to rival its more celebrated industry. It’s a success story whose latest chapter is qualifying for the 2014 World Cup from a tough group also including Serbia, Croatia, Wales and Scotland and whose next might be putting up in Brazil the kind of performance they are being tipped for. They were No.6 in the Fifa rankings (above Uruguay, Brazil and the Netherlands) in September, a steep climb from 20th spot in January and 34 places above their rank at the same time last year.

Belgian football’s success is already evident in the top European clubs, especially in the English Premier League. Manchester City are captained by Vincent Kompany, arguably the world’s best central defender on current form; Arsenal’s captain is Thomas Vermaelen; Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke are near the top of the scoring charts for the current season and if Marouane Fellaini hasn’t yet caught the eye at his new club Manchester United, his teammate Januzaj certainly has. Add to this Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, who many see as the creative spark that will raise Belgium to that different dimension.

That list of players spans ethnicities ranging from the Congo and Zaire to Morocco and, in the case of Januzaj, Albania and Kosovo too. Throw in Belgium’s Dutch and French halves and it’s quite a melting pot—reminiscent of France’s “rainbow nation" team, including Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira, Marcel Desailly and Youri Djorkaeff, which dominated football at the turn of the millennium.

It’s all a long way from a decade ago, when Belgium co-hosted (along with the Netherlands) the European Championships, and were dumped out in the first round after losing to Turkey and Italy. The country had already experienced relative success with one great team, which reached the semi-final of the 1986 World Cup. Back then, their World Cup squad included only two players who played for foreign clubs—goalkeeper Jean-Marie Pfaff (Bayern Munich) and defender Eric Gerets (PSV Eindhoven). Their dynamic midfielder Enzo Scifo was voted, in a Fifa poll, the best young player of that tournament. Pfaff and captain Jan Ceulemans were part of the official team of the tournament. Their coach was the long-serving Guy Thys, who by the time he retired in 1989, had overseen 45 wins in 101 matches.

The lull that followed was hard for a small country grappling with political and economic issues, stemming mainly from the deep divisions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish community and the French-speaking Walloons. The ignominy of the Euro 2000 prompted much introspection, however, and led to the evolution of a 10-year plan overseen by Michel Sablon, the technical director of the national football association. The basic point of the plan was to evolve a national playing style that would be in effect at every level starting with the schools. What this meant was that players got used to one system and would play the same way when they turned out for their national team. It’s an approach that Spain adopted to famous effect—the Barcelona version of tiki-taka is what the national team plays, with minor tweaks. It’s what England, for example, have failed to do, to much national anguish—there is no formal national style of playing, leading to confusion among players when they get together in their brief windows for international matches.

What has also helped Belgium is its relatively liberal immigration laws that allow citizenship after two years, unlike the UK’s five. Apart from increasing their own opportunities with immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe, it has also led to Belgium being a hub of feeder clubs for the major European teams. So a British club could sign a player from Africa or Asia and loan him to a club in Belgium where, after two years, he would be an EU citizen and thus not subject to stringent labour laws.

Like Spain, again, Belgium’s top footballers have benefited from years of playing together; some of them were part of the squad in the 2008 Olympics where Belgium finished fourth, a year after a team, including Hazard and Benteke, reached the semi-finals of the European Under-17 championships. Many are personal friends off the field, the Flemish-Walloon differences dissolving with distance from home—a tactic Thys used with great success in the less ethnically diverse team of the 1980s. The fans have returned too, after indifference towards the national team thanks to the lean spell and, similar to Spain, an inability to identify with a national team. Over the past year, the national association launched a programme called “The Challenges", aimed at reviving public interest in the Red Devils, as the national team is nicknamed. It’s a plan across platforms and media, including—bizarrely—the city of Geel (meaning yellow) changing its name to Rood (red) on match days. Whatever it takes. A country with a small population, deep ethnic divisions and a second-rung football league is threatening the big powers—and in its threat are lessons of survival and sustainability.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo

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