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Fueled by Stella

by Lawrence de Geest for Flanders Today # 202, October 19, 2011
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Belgium’s national football team, The Red Devils, failed last week to qualify for the 2012 European Championships. The last time they appeared in any championship was in 2002, and the last time they managed to get past the quarter–finals was in 1986. The present generation of football fans have, despite a promising squad of young players, no space for hope unless they invent it.

Fortunately, a more successful ambassador has appeared in the form of an amateur team in New York City, Team Flanders House. Cobbled together with temporary professionals from Belgium and the rest of the world, the ambitious team, both on the pitch and in the pub, finished this year’s spring season in second place after a hotly contested final. Hopes are high for the prize next season to add to their two existing championships. Their excitement is something you could call a smiling impatience. Manhattan is a place that endows you with everything but time.

Roel Sterken, team captain, creator, and post-doctoral researcher in kidney genetics at Columbia University, explains that the whole thing started with a networking event. “This event for Belgians in New York happened once a month in Manhattan’s Belgian pubs Markt and BXL East and attracted quite a young crowd. On one of those evenings, the conversation went from ‘Let’s do a bike ride’ to ‘Let’s play soccer’ with all the Belgians in NYC.”

The team secured some financing from Flanders House, the cultural representation of the Flemish government in New York. With the sponsorship, the team was able in turn to support the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a charity. All that was left to do was to recruit the players.

Defender Dennis Van Zoelen, a tax consultant, joined the team “by pretending to be from Wallonia but fluent in Dutch,” he says. Others were found through keen scouting efforts. “One of the team’s players saw my skills during a Wimblefoot Tournament” – a sport that is a blend of tennis, football and brandy – “and invited me to fight for the cause,” says Stefano Storace, a doctoral candidate in physics from Italy.

Accounting firm Deloitte has consistently supplied eager players, according to winger and New Jersey native Brigid Matrai, who works for the firm’s international tax law division. When she joined, the team was looking for women – league rules require three women on the pitch at any time during a match. Theoretically, reducing on-pitch testosterone makes football more casual. Though most – if not all – squad members tie themselves together in manners deeper than sport. Romances have been made and lost. Two newcomers even got married.

“It’s more than just football,” says Italian full-back and scientist Valentina Emmanuelle. “I’ve met good people; I’ve made close friends; I’ve discovered new interests. And I can handle more than two beers now.”

The squad consensus is twofold about what makes Team Flanders House. First, the spirited camaraderie and relaxed atmosphere – winning is nice, good even, but not necessary. Second, the post-game drinks. Storace relates the team to Stella Artois: personal without being aggressive, stylish, international.

Van Zoelen offers another. “The Flanders House team would be a beer with international reach and fame, good for fast and heavy drinking, a nice golden colour and of course a good name. I’d say Duvel.”

Due to the nature of their professional arrangements the players can only stick around so long. One recently departed savoured every moment of her seven-hour runway delay at the airport. Others relish homecoming. The gradient depends on what emotions brought them here in the first place.

Johan Halsberghe, a chef, says that “you meet people from different working sectors and share the experience of being abroad for work. I plan to stay as long as possible until I have no reason to be here anymore.”

The spring season final was intense. It was played at Columbia University’s Bakers Field in a cold rainstorm marking the start of what became a hot summer. A 4-4 draw was played in the crimson of personal confrontation between Team Flanders House and their American opponents. A stalemate overtime led to penalties. Team Flanders House lost the match when their final effort ricocheted off the goal's crossbar, sounding like the gavel of a judge at verdict.

Yet the wetness of the defeat was forgotten when, hours later, they were singing karaoke, using pints as microphones. It was a Wednesday night turning into morning, and, though they would have to go to work soon, there was always one more drink.