The new normal

Belgium's national team hopes to unite a reeling nation

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In total, 16 full Belgian internationals play in the Premier League, many of whom are superstars across the globe. Of course, one team cannot eradicate the seemingly complex and vast social issues currently prevalent in Belgium following Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, but they can be a vehicle of hope and respite from the dark times which seem to lie ahead for the citizens of Belgium.

On Tuesday, Marc Wilmots’ national squad were due to train at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels but canceled their session out of respect for the victims of the attacks. They usually don’t train at King Baudouin but with the security threat so high their usual training base in Anderlecht ahead of international games had to be abandoned.

The Belgian players always stay at a hotel in the Zaventem airport complex, which was targeted by suicide bombers. Following the attacks, many of Belgium’s players took to social media to share their sadness and in a nation seemingly under siege, they have a lot of pressure on their shoulders to provide hope.

But with their last friendly in Brussels – against Spain in November — canceled due to safety fears and next Tuesday’s friendly against Portugal in Brussels moved to Portugal, they might not play in front of their own fans before the 2016 European Championships this summer depending on how the situation unfolds.

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Vincent Kompany, captain of Man City and Belgium, is from the Uccle district of Brussels.

He took to Twitter on Tuesday and revealed that he is “horrified and revolted” by the attacks in his hometown.

The 29-year-old center back is among the finest defenders on the planet but is also a deep thinker who is completing an MBA while leading one of the most ambitious clubs on the planet and also the No. 1 national team. His father was a political refugee from DR Congo and his mother a French-Belgian who worked in Brussels’ employment office. He knows the city inside out.

Speaking to CNN last November following the Paris terrorist attacks that left 130 dead, Kompany looked devastated as he answered questions about how the terror cell responsible for the atrocities in Paris had been from his hometown of Brussels.

“It is very upsetting,” Kompany said. “I didn’t sleep for three days after the attacks, as well as information came through that it was related to my city. For me, it was hurtful. I love my city. I love the people that live there and like most of the people, I think I was shocked.”

But how has Brussels become home to individuals who are acting on behalf of ISIS, who have now carried out attacks on two capital cities in Europe?

Speaking after the Paris attacks, Kompany offered this explanation.

“Quite clearly, something has gone terribly wrong,” Kompany said. “I think most of it has happened without a lot of us making the right analysis. If you look towards Brussels it is a city with a lot of youth unemployment and it is a very wealthy city. A lot of the people who actually live in this wealthy city are the poor ones. To say that it is a hotbed of terrorism, I think it goes a lot further than this.

“I think the way the entire city is structured is favorable for a lot of people to fall out of the system, very simply. We have a city of a million people divided up into 19 boroughs with 19 mayors and six police zones. Those people who have perpetrated the attacks are people who have been able to fall off the grid, that have not come into contact from anything else than the people who have been able to indoctrinate them. That has been made in the mistakes we’ve made in structuring our cities.”

Kompany also said that he believed the Paris attacks were “really predictable” and slammed politicians in Brussels for only visiting the poorer regions of the capital “every six years when they needed votes.”

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Last week, my wife and I traveled through Brussels.

With the Premier League light on games due to the FA Cup action, we decided to hop on a Eurostar train in London and headed to Bruges for a last-minute trip. We had to change trains in Brussels, but on our way over the heavy police presence in and around the Belgian capital was unnerving to two people from the U.S. and England.

On our way back we had an experience which perhaps summed up the growing tensions in Belgium and the level they had reached.

Getting on a train from Bruges into Brussels takes about an hour. Twenty minutes or so outside of Brussels, our train stopped in Ghent. We stayed in Ghent for quite some time and curious as to our delay, I looked outside the window. I did not expect to see several armed policeman frantically running around. They had held our train and after minutes of concern and confusion an announcement was made over the PA system in Flemish and French. My wife asked the lady next to us what was said.

“They said the police are searching for a man with a gun on the train. They think he is on the train,” said the passenger, nonchalantly.

My wife and I were startled enough to jump off the train, which was still undergoing a heavy search, to grab a coffee in Ghent’s station before getting on the next train to Brussels and then heading back to London.

That’s just one story of the growing tensions in and around Belgium leading up to the attacks this week, but what struck me was the sense of acceptance from the other passengers. Not many were surprised or shocked to hear what was happening. Some ate a sandwich or painted their nails and didn’t bat an eyelid.

The new normal in Belgium seems to, sadly, accept that terrorist attacks will happen and dangerous gunmen will be on the loose. These are dark days.

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The problem with Molenbeek is not necessarily about nationality, it’s more about the segregation,” Kompany explained last year. “It’s not just Molenbeek, I need to repeat it. Ultimately, people living in Brussels will have to be responsible as well for making sure the stuff like this can never happen again.”

Those were Kompany’s words following the attacks in Paris about the Molenbeek district, which has been at the heart of police raids ever since, to try and eradicate those plotting against Western Civilization.

Sadly, Kompany’s words ring even truer following the ISIS claimed attacks on Brussels which saw houses in the nearby Schaerbeek district once again raided as explosives and chemicals were found in the district on Tuesday.

Kompany’s teammate with Belgium, and Premier League rival, Marounae Fellaini, is a Muslim from the Etterbeek neighborhood of Brussels, which neighbors Molenbeek. He was reluctant to speak with me last November about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and how they were linked to his home city.

Like Kompany, the Man United midfielder had grown up right next to these neighborhoods of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, which are know described as a “crucible of terror” and a “Jihadi heaven” by the media.

Fellaini wants peace in his home city.

“Unfortunately that is the world at the moment,” Fellaini said of the extra security in Brussels. “For me, the first thing is for peace. That is the first thing. Everyone has to be happy, you know? And enjoy their life and stop thinking about bad things because we live just once.”

Whether they know it or not, Fellaini and his Belgian teammates can become a symbol of peace and hope for Belgium this summer in France.

Wilmots’ team is made up of players who reflect Belgium’s multicultural society perfectly.

Kompany and Everton striker Romelu Lukaku are of Congolese heritage. Fellaini, Tottenham Hotspur’s Nacer Chadli and teen sensation Zakaria Bakkali are from Morocco. The father of Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele is from Mali.

The family of Liverpool striker Divock Origi is from Kenya. The father of Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel is from Martinique. Thomas Vermaelen speaks to the media in Flemish. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard speaks in French. Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne speaks Dutch, French and English. Fellaini can speak Arabic, French and English.

One thing links all of these players: they play for Belgium. They represent the nation they call home which is currently under attack from within.

“There are a lot of players from different origins,” Fellaini explained to me. “We have Arabic, mixed race, Belgian, black players and that is why Belgium is strong, I think, because we are made up of a lot of different origins and we understand each other.”

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Due to their status as the No. 1 team on the planet since last November, Belgium is among the favorites to win the 2016 European Championships in France this summer.

They’ve never won a major title but with Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois and Kompany leading the charge, they are currently listed as the fourth favorites with the bookmakers to win EURO 2016.

Security measures will undoubtedly be ramped up even further for the tournament this summer following the attacks on Paris and Brussels, but on the pitch Kompany believes Belgium can win it all.

“Of course we want to win it. With the talent we have in the team, it is the only ambition that we should have,” Kompany explained to me earlier this season. “I don’t think we are an underdog anymore. We have passed that stage. We are not the favorites, I would say that we are co-favorites, if that makes sense. The two super favorites, for me, are Germany and Spain. Then there is a bunch of teams who might do it and I think we are a part of that. Italy, France, ourselves and I am probably forgetting a team or two but those, for me, are the ones to look for.”

When speaking to some contacts who live in France last weekend, before the Brussels attacks, I was told there was a growing notion that there would be some animosity towards Belgium’s team and fans at EURO 2016 this summer.

After all, the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris came from Brussels, with the average Frenchman on the street perhaps growing increasingly wary of Belgium and the threat it posed to France.

However, with scenes such as the Eiffel Tower lit up in the colors of the Belgian flag on Tuesday evening, it’s hard to see how these shocking attacks in both Paris and Brussels will not act to unite the people of Belgium and France, both in the immediate aftermath and this summer during the biggest-ever European Championships tournament, which will include 24 teams for the first time.

It will also be the biggest-ever tournament for Belgium and Fellaini told me that people coming together throughout in Belgium to support their national team is something that inspires the players.

“Millions of people watch football, they come to watch the games, the atmosphere is unbelievable and the players are happy to play football because of the atmosphere,” Fellaini said. “It is great to see people together and for example when they all support one team and they shout, it is an unbelievable sensation, for the players and the supporters.”

If only for a few hours each game, the Belgian national team will provide the nation with a real sense of hope and belief that they can achieve something special this summer.

The current security situation in the country is likely to get worse before it gets better but instead of growing further apart, sport — as it has done countless times in the past — can help bring people together.

Fellaini has set his sights on at least a semifinal appearance for Belgium, while Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois was more reluctant to give me a definite target but believes a bright future lies ahead for the young squad.

“When I was around 16, 17, you saw the Belgian national team had a lot of young talent getting to play abroad. You saw that what they were missing was a little bit of experience. There was talent and then that (experience) finally came,” Courtois said. “I think (during) the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, we played really well, and at the World Cup, we did a good job. We have a very good national team, and we should be able to achieve some big things with our team.”

Kompany agrees that Belgium has a big future in the soccer world with talented new stars emerging all the time.

He is also proud to be the leader of a group of players that is making global headlines as the best soccer team on the planet, the first time Belgium has ever been No. 1 in the rankings.

“It is pretty historical for us. It is just that one day that is worth everything,” Kompany explained with a smile on his face. “The fact that we could have that achievement under our names, you know, because for Belgium it is a very, very special achievement. Again, it gives people that belief that you come from a small country but you can achieve great things. Now, the whole focus is going to be on the Euros. We want to win it. We’ve said it, we can’t hide away from it, but there’s still so much work for us to do to come even close to that dream.”

In the aftermath of these attacks, the Belgian national team can help the Belgian people dream of a brighter future.

Kompany hopes that one day, positive times will return. With a positive performance at EURO 2016 this summer, he and his teammates could have a huge impact on this happening.

For now and in the future, Brussels will always be in the thoughts of Kompany and many of his teammates who call it home.

“Brussels will always be this city of diversity, of wealth of culture, and I encourage everyone to speak and say how much they love the city, and to just now start the positive talking.”