The first one goes in, finally. The small crowd erupts – maybe 10 or 15 people, and just a handful of them are decked head-to-toenail in that beautifully tacky, sort-of vintage Red Devil tunic. I don’t even know the manufacturer; I just know it’s not Nike or Adidas. These people here, they’re a part of something special and intimate. They care about Belgium, along with (what I’ll have to assume is) a tiny portion of Vancouverites, but I’m jealous. The Belgians aren’t like the Italians, the English, the Dutch, the Germans, the Brazilians, or (in recent years) the Portuguese and the French. They’re not loud (not in that drunk Aussie or American way at least) and their history isn’t storied, not to most of us anyway, not in the way we’d think of the Germans or the Argentines, or any other perennial heavyweight.
Belgium’s bandwagon isn’t a bandwagon, not in the traditional sense.
The futbol fans here, they’re not just a part of something special, but they’re apart from it, as well. On the sideline, standing next to all the World Cup pageantry and the big lights of the big stage, you have pockets of Belgian supporters – real Belgians like the ones in BierCraft, a lowland-themed tapas bar on Vancouver’s infamously ethnic Commercial Drive, where the fans are expatriated now-Canadians who know something and feel something only 11 million others do.
The second goal goes in – like the whole ordeal was never in doubt – and Belgium roars back to take a 2-1 victory, with two quick boots to the back of the net in the game’s final 20 minutes giving them first place in Group H. They had inexplicably trailed Algeria 1-0 until late – despite outshooting them 10-1 in the game, despite their seven corners, and despite having the ball 65 per cent of the time.
I’m at BierCraft and it’s a Tuesday morning, at 8:45 a.m. You’d think there wouldn’t be a big crowd here, and there’s not. But again, I started on the bar by myself and I slowly merged into the pit in front of the larger monitor at halftime, when I felt confident enough to talk about the game if I had to, when I knew I wouldn’t accidentally walk in front of the projector and ruins three half-seconds of some chocolate afficionado’s way.
Belgium is a country of stereotypes. Why? Because, honestly, who knows any damn thing about Belgium? Chocolate. Beer. Europe. It’s small, it speaks French, and we probably think it’s German, we stupid Canadians. We all want to go there, either because we have a friend who went to Antwerp when they had four days free, thought they’d be bored, but unexpectedly fell in love with it. Or, we’ve seen In Bruges.
BierCraft is Vancouver’s home for Belgium during this 2014 World Cup and, as soon as I have to leave, I know I’ll be back on Sunday.
The food is just different enough to be perfect – the English Breakfast is $10 during the tournament, and it’s typical diner brunch food like bacon and sausages and toast and eggs, but they also toss in a small side dish of baked beans, almost like a chili, which hits the spot I didn’t even know I had. The beers are all fantastic-looking, with every bottle having its own branded glass to accompany it to your table. The guy next to me has something called a Trappistes Rochefort, which he said was delicious but probably too strong for 10 o’clock in the morning. (I’m not sure what too strong is, to be honest with you.) I don’t know his name because I didn’t ask it, but I know he’s not from Antwerp or Bruges or Brussels – he got the beer after talking to family beside him, a Belgian group of four who then spent a solid five minutes with him, coaching him on how to pour it and giving him some insight into their countries’ well-known brewing prowess. They seemed pretty eager to modestly brag about it all, and why wouldn’t they? They might not get this chance very often.
(I had a Carlsberg. Carlsberg is Danish and brewed out of England, so I felt a little ashamed, but it was also on special.)
And the team is exciting. They’re back in the sport’s good graces again, back in the driver’s seat a the favourite in a World Cup group. Again, this is thanks to their inevitable win over Algeria, and to draw between Russia and South Korea later that day. But it’s also thanks to their ranking – Belgium came into Brazil tabled at 11th in the world, in front of the usual suspects you know are good, like Holland or France, even Mexico and the United States, two teams that were ranked in the world’s top five before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Belgium can thank Premier League stars like Eden Hazard and Vincent Kompany for their resurrection, and they can thank goal-scorers Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens for their win over Algeria.
Across the way, just on the other side of the street and within full view from BierCraft’s massive front window, are two Portuguese strongholds: Joe’s Cafe and the Portuguese Club of Vancouver, two places that are flying at half-mast after their Ronaldo and Co. club were slain 4-0 by Germany the day before.
But Joe’s Cafe erupts at 25 minutes after 9 o’clock. See, most places on Commercial Drive have a couple backup countries, and the Portuguese diner is also the home of Algeria during this World Cup. At halftime, I can see a CBC reporter and a cameraman over there – you’ll see plenty of them on Commercial this month, too, as it’s the perfect, typical Hey, look how multicultural we are! story any network would be crazy not to regurgitate, sort of like how you just made pasta for dinner for the fourth time this week.
(Joe’s Cafe is a little like Babu’s Dream Cafe from Seinfeld. There’s a definite identity there but, during the Cup, the walls are lined with flags from every competing nation, and its chameleon-ish charm is more welcoming up front than the closed doors of most of Commercial’s one-way ethnic haunts.)
At halftime, with the camera in their face and their team up by one shot, the Algerians at Joe’s are going nuts, jumping and yelling something inaudible.
It’s nice they just discovered the sport and just bought those jerseys. I’m sure the Belgians I’m next to are annoyed. Because I am, and I don’t really care.
But then again… I do. And that’s how easy it is. Look at me, already digging my heels into one side of the street, putting up a wall and furrowing my brow to the other French-speaking country in Group H.
It’s easy to be cynical about soccer, too, especially for Canadians who seem to take moronic pleasure in watching some squinting South American star writhe around on the field, faking an injury so he can get the call. “Man,” the Canadians say, “you’d never see a hockey player do that.”
Well, duh. (Except when you do.)
But hockey season’s over. Right now, the rest of the world is into something else – and it really is the rest of the entire world. I don’t have to try to make that sound poetic. If you’re reading this, you’re either already converted or you never will be. This isn’t a travel piece or some self-righteous lifestyle Pin; it’s just an observation.
And so what if someone wants to rediscover their Italian heritage for two weeks every four years? And so what if you’ve been to Portugal a couple times, you got enjoyable hammered in Lisbon and then thought, “Hey, I think I’d like to be Portuguese now”?
Treat the World Cup like Twitter or Adam Levine’s music. You’ll hate it until you try it.
But it is annoying, of course, to see a team you love lose, whether you’ve been behind them for 20 years or 20 minutes. And it’s worse when you’ve got someone next to you, wearing one of those stylish-only-to-dudes soccer jerseys you’ll see in a Zellers bin in five years, cheering against you and cheering for a nation you don’t really care for, not right now anyway.
Admit it: you think discriminatory thoughts. It’s okay: there are 32 countries here, and you’re allowed to stereotype a little.
Just get them out of the way: the English have bad teeth, the Italians never shut up, the Portuguese dive, the Germans have better hair than they have finish, and the French are despised by pretty much anyone who’s not French. Also, you’re North Americanm and you’re stereotyped, too… you like the Dutch Oranje, you love [Insert African Team Here], and you’re a big fan of Chile or Colombia because you’ve got money riding on a dark horse that’s talented enough for the bet to not be delusional.
So once you’ve thought all those things and bit your tongue, sit down and enjoy a match. Pick a team if you don’t have one – again, I’d like to nominate Belgium. Find your new country’s home on Commercial Drive, that beautiful street that runs parallel to and east of the nauseatingly spectacled, coiffed hipster avenue of Main. Commercial is a wonderful strip of Vancouver, where you can walk down a residential side street and think you’re in a post-War Ontario city, where you’ll feel guilty sitting in a Starbucks because Italian flags hang from every sign and you totally get why people like espresso, where everything feels authentic because it is, but comfortable because it’s still Canada, after all.
Belgium plays again this Sunday, at 9:00 a.m. against Russia. This time, I’d recommend you get there early.