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Belgium’s Language Divide Affects Everything From Government to Soccer Clubs

The divide between French speakers and Dutch speakers in Belgium has grown increasingly intractable, and currently affects everything from how well the country’s government does (or does not) function to coaching schoolchildren at a soccer club.

According to the Associated Press, the KFC Strombeek soccer club of Grimbergen, Belgium has been officially banned from coaching children’s soccer in French. Apparently, when Dutch-speaking citizens of the town heard coaches were speaking French to some of the children (presumably, children who already spoke French), they organized a petition to ensure that future coaching sessions were conducted entirely in Dutch.

That might seem mean-spirited, but it’s symptomatic of a divide that extends throughout Belgian society. In fact, over 2 months after the last elections, Belgium’s government is at a standstill as French and Dutch factions of 7 political parties try to negotiate the next steps.  The party that won the elections, the New Flemish Alliance, wants to split the country in two.

The bulk of Belgium’s economic activity and prosperity is concentrated in the Dutch half of the country, leading many Dutch speakers to resent their French-speaking countrymen. But why take these tensions out on a soccer club?

That’s what Christian Donneux, the president of the soccer club, would like to know. He told the AP:

“We are a sports club, not a political party. Many of my patients here in Grimbergen are Francophones. Am I supposed to send them away?”

Meanwhile, Robert Timmermans, the man who organized the petition against the soccer club, watched a group of French-speaking children at practice and declared:

“They must be coached in Dutch. This is our soccer field. (Dutch-speakers) paid for it. It is our tax money. Grimbergen is a Dutch-speaking town.”‘