U.S.-Belgium makes it tough on Chicago's Belgians

City fired up to watch Tuesday's World Cup match, but loyalties will be divided for some

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As honorary consul of the Kingdom of Belgium in Chicago, Paul Van Halteren gets invited to plenty of places around town.

Usually, Van Halteren loves representing his native country with pride and without feeling uncomfortable or inhibited — something nobody can guarantee if he accepts Tuesday's invitation to watch the U.S.-Belgium World Cup game at the University Club on East Monroe.

"I don't know, I'd be like a lamb to the wolves with all those U.S. fans around me,'' Van Halteren said Monday with a chuckle.

Van Halteren, who has lived in Chicago since 1987, ordinarily counts himself as one of those U.S. fans, but nothing feels ordinary about a match that, in Van Halteren's words, gives the 600 Belgians he connects with in Illinois and Indiana a "chance to all stand up.'' Enthusiastically, Van Halteren will be the one waving his country's tricolor flag of black, yellow and red and anxiously waiting to see if banged-up Belgian captain Vincent Kompany can keep up with the Americans.

Winners likely get Argentina. Losers probably just cry.

"My heart is split into two,'' Van Halteren said. "I really like this U.S. team and its coach. I never thought this situation would happen.''

Hendrik Spaepen, who has dual citizenship in the United States and Belgium, understands the ambivalence. Spaepen, 30, recently earned his MBA from the University of Chicago's Booth School, where he co-chaired the Belgian Business Students Group that included 32 members.

Since the late 1980s, the school has developed a unique connection with Belgium universities that allows for a regular exchange of students and cultures. At the Belgian students group's 20th annual Halloween party in October, Spaepen and several classmates dressed up in custom-made uniforms as "Red Devils,'' the nickname of the Belgium national team's players.

So a red jersey remains ready if Spaepen wishes to put it on again at 3 p.m. Tuesday when he will head to a River North bar with international flavor — and Belgian beer on tap — to experience the game.

"I've actually agonized over what to wear,'' said Spaepen, who grew up outside Boston but whose parents are Belgian.

He visited relatives in Belgium every summer as a child. Despite his family's heritage, Spaepen insisted he will root for Team USA — at least until he checks his watch.

"I go back and forth, hour by hour,'' Spaepen said. "I was born and raised in the U.S., it's almost the Fourth of July, so I will root for the U.S. … But if Belgium scores I will have a fist-pump or two, for sure.''

For sure, the World Cup has produced its share of fist-pumping and flag-waving in cities all over America such as Chicago, where the popularity and credibility of soccer have enjoyed surprising surges. It turns out Ann Coulter was as right about soccer as Karl Rove once was about Mitt Romney.

July's arrival here announces the free-agent courtship of Carmelo Anthony and conversation over the imminent contract extensions of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. But, remarkably, the beautiful game still captivates enough people in this football town that Soldier Field will be the place to be Tuesday afternoon — and there won't be a Bear in sight.

Whether it's on a giant video board or on TVs in barrooms and living rooms producing record ratings, we will tune in to hear Ian Darke, whose distinct voice has become the soundtrack of this summer.

We eagerly await the emotion of the next elaborate goal celebration or unique national anthem. We look forward to complaining about the travesty of flopping and the mystery of stoppage time. We relish random conversations debating Messi vs. Ronaldo and defending Michael Bradley.

We like the drama of penalty kicks deciding the outcome but loathe the idea of a game so significant coming down to a guess by a goalie. We marvel at the way U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann went from saying U.S. players had no chance to making them have no fear. We hate how Klinsmann questioned the integrity of an Algerian referee Monday but love almost everything else Klinsmann has done to sharpen the psychological edge of his young team.

We want the U.S. to keep playing, if for no better reason, than this is more enjoyable than many of us expected.

On that, Belgians and Americans will agree about their vastly improved teams.

"It's a shame these two up-and-comers couldn't try to knock out one of the perennial powers in the first round instead of each other,'' Spaepen said. "Beating the U.S. for Belgium would be solid, but not like knocking off England, France or Germany. That would be the Red Sox beating the Yankees.''

Everywhere you look these days, the Yanks are coming. And from Sao Paulo to Chicago, more people than ever are going to remember.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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