It was not a question which expected an answer. Its purpose to disparage, it was a verbal sneer, designed to belittle and to mock a country assumed in the wider prejudice to be worthy of nothing but ridicule. And never mind that anyone with a functioning brain would have spotted that the nation had produced dozens of internationally renowned cultural and sporting figures, from Rene Magritte to Herge, from Audrey Hepburn to Plastic Bertrand, the calumny was allowed to go unchallenged for years. Belgium, we in England told each other, was reckoned a back-water of little international prominence.
Well, not any more. When challenged with the old saw now, any English football fan can quickly name a dozen famous Belgians. And all of them are footballers. Indeed, on the day the oldest international cranks up its 111th incarnation at Wembley, it is rather easier to put together a team of renowned Belgians currently plying their trade in the English Premier League than it would be one of players of Scots birth. Actually, it is probably easier to name a decent XI selected from famous Premier League Belgians than it is one made up of Englishmen.
So let’s do it. Playing 3-4-1-2, it reads like this: Simon Mignolet (Liverpool); Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham); Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Everton), Eden Hazard (Chelsea); Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Christian Benteke (Aston Villa).
But the really interesting name is the 11th one in that side. As if to emphasise that the era of Belgian fame is not coming to a rapid conclusion, to play in the hole behind the battering ram duo of Lukaku and Benteke we have the choice of either Chelsea’s Kevin de Bruyne or Adnan Januzaj of Manchester United. And those who have seen them reckon these two might be the best yet to cross the channel.
De Bruyne had a brilliant year on loan at Werder Bremen. Borussia Dortmund were among a bunch of clubs keen to take him on. But one of the first things Jose Mourinho did on taking up his position at Stamford Bridge was to bring the player back to Chelsea with assurances he would figure this coming season. Indeed, at his opening press conference, the new Chelsea manager talked enthusiastically about how the return of De Bruyne (who initially cost £7 million from Gent) would prove the soundness of the economic model of buying young foreign players and schooling them in the club academy.
It was, he said, a policy he wanted to continue and the best way round any restrictions that might emerge from Financial Fair Play. Much more sensible than rewarding other clubs for their development programme with huge fees for established players.
Januzaj, too, looks a real gem. A star of United’s reserve team last season, the 18-year-old played a couple of cameos during the summer which had many an observer purring. A couple of the passes he made during Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial suggested United may have been fortunate that their embarrassing wild goose chase of Cesc Fabregas came to nought. This boy looks as if he has all the ability to prove the Spaniard’s equal.
No doubt after tonight’s all-British local bust-up there will be the usual hand-wringing about the woeful lack of technique of the English and Scotsmen on show. Jack Wilshere apart, none of them will set the place alight with their touch or vision. But if we are seeking a way forward, there is not much point looking with envy at the Belgian way of producing talent. The intriguing thing about this surfeit of Belgian excellence is that it has largely arrived by chance not design.
There is no great football education system in the country. Huge amounts of money have not been poured into the game with the intention of producing top class players. This is not Spain where everyone is taught from a young age to play like Xavi. Nor is it like neighbouring Holland where for years clubs have had specialised educational establishments the envy of the world. In fact, many of the players who will make Belgium one of the favourites for next summer’s World Cup, learned their craft abroad.
Vincent Kompany was apprenticed in Germany, Eden Hazard in France, Januzaj came to United at 16. Plus, this is a national football system benefitting from its government’s liberal attitude to immigration. While De Bruyne and Vertonghen might be traditional Belgian names, Dembele, Lukaku, Fellaini and Januzaj are evidence of a United Nations culture.
The truth is, right now the Belgians are lucky, it is just one of those quirks of historical fortune. Mind, it could be argued that the clubs in the Premier League are also lucky that the place most Belgians want to play their trade is England. Whoever comes out on top – City, Chelsea or United - the colour of the coming season appears to be black, yellow and red.