No brotherly love: Belgian fans say knocking off rival France would be sweet

MONTREAL — As with most long-standing neighbours, the relationship between Belgium and France is one that has its fair share of friendly needling built in.

Belgian fans say they’re used to being treated like the “little brother” by their French sibling and being the target of jokes and quips.

But on the soccer pitch, fans of the Red Devils, as the national Belgian squad is known, are hoping to have the last laugh when the rivals square off in a World Cup semifinal in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.

“The French use their francophone Belgian neighbours to enrich their humour,” says Robert Defays, a native Belgian who has lived a long time in Quebec.

“I think there’s a sense of pride in France. They are very full of themselves and they’d find it very hard to be knocked out by little Belgium.

“I think the two countries like each other dearly, but they like to make fun of each other,” says Defays, the owner of a restaurant produce distributor in Blainville, north of Montreal.

He notes he’s been rooting (and betting) for Belgium throughout the tournament, hasn’t lost yet and adds he loves the fluidity and teamwork they’ve displayed.

“You sense a rapport among the players,” Defays said. “They’ve never quit.”

That fighting spirit was most evident when they stormed back from 2-0 down with 20 minutes to go to defeat Japan 3-2 in the round of 16. They then edged Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-final.

Gregory Vloemans, who recently returned from holiday in his native soccer-mad Belgium, will take another day off Tuesday to watch the team play les Bleus at a bar in Toronto with other expats.

The ex-Montrealer said town squares in Belgium were filled to the brim on the day the country was playing — with all eyes fixated on big screens.

“That was awesome, the way how people live it in Belgium, it’s like total insanity,” Vloemans said.

“It’s been 32 years since they’ve been this far in the World Cup, so everyone is going mental … they’re all super excited for all the games.”

While they’ve gone head-to-head numerous times, the last time the teams played each other in a World Cup was in 1986 — a 4-2 victory for France in the third-place match.

“There isn’t a single person who isn’t watching, I can tell you that,” said Vloemans, an Antwerp native who moved to Canada a few years ago.

In Montreal, the 1909 Taverne moderne will double as Red Devil headquarters at a viewing party organized by the Belgian Consulate and that’s where Andreas Dhaene expects to be.

After falling short at Euro 2016, the Belgian squad has met expectations during its World Cup run, Dhaene said.

The native of Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium, has lived in Montreal nearly seven years and says there’s typically a solidarity and friendship among European natives who find themselves living far from home.

But Dhaene feels that’ll be set aside Tuesday.

As for the rivalry with France, Dhaene says it’s no different from other national spats.

“We’re neighbours, we love each other at certain times, and other times we hate each other and soccer is definitely one of those things,” said Dhaene.

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