France vs Belgium: How World Cup semi-final became celebration of immigration headed by two unlikely candidates

Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli have become unlikely heroes for Belgium and will fly the flag for Northern Africa in the semi-final

France Belgium World Cup preview

The World Cup - yes, world - has been narrowed down to four European teams, France, Belgium, England and Croatia, who have just two tournament wins between them. Delve a little deeper and you discover that various nations from ranging continents and cultures will be embraced in the final weekend of the tournament as a special celebration of integrated cultures.

Marouane Fellaini, Nacer Chadli, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, Dedryck Boyata, Michy Batshuayi, Mousa Dembele, Axel Witsel and Adnan Januzaj all have at least one parent from another nation and make up the bulk of Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ which has benefitted greater from second generation immigration than any other country.

Instead of mentioning ‘Belgium’ in the same sentence as ‘semi-final’ we could very easily be waxing lyrical about Takashi Inui and Keisuke Honda had Japan held onto their lead, or it could have been time for Brazil’s next generation of stars to take their place at the top table. Instead, thanks to two unlikely candidates, it is Belgium’s rightful turn in the spotlight.

With 30 minutes to go and a two goal deficit to overturn against Japan, panic set in on Roberto Martinez’s face and thoughts. In a last-ditch effort to turn the game around, he abandoned his strict principles and brought on Fellaini and Chadli. Jan Vertonghen pulled one goal back and Fellaini found the back of the net with a trademark bullish header to level the score. 90 minutes had passed and the game was heading for extra-time, but Chadli timed his run into the box to perfection and scored a 95th minute winning goal to become the unlikely hero as Belgium avoided humiliation.

Chadli and Fellaini were rewarded for their performances with a place in the starting line-up in the quarter-final against Brazil and wasted to time in repaying the faith Martinez had shown in them. Fellaini kept Philippe Coutinho and Neymar’s attacking influence to a minimum and tucked into a tight midfield as Belgium held firm, Chadli also defended well and was a useful outlet when the Red Devils moved up the pitch.

With players like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne in the team, to talk about Fellaini and Chadli as Belgium’s influential players feels like all the praise is in the wrong place, except it’s not.

Fellaini has adopted a more important role as the tournament has progressed 

“We are extremely proud of Nacer and Marouane,” Martinez said ahead of Belgium’s semi-final clash with France. “Their performances have been incredible. Not just on the football level, where they've been very interesting technically and tactically.

"They are two players who are winners, they are fighters, they are survivors. I think for me they are an example for any young player who wants to play the game. And any young player who wants to face adversity in life."

Born in Belgium to Moroccan parents, Fellaini has been subject to intense criticism and mockery from fans who cannot quite appreciate what it takes to defend against a player like him. His contract renewal at Manchester United was met with the usual jokes and cynicism, but what is no joke is that he is flying the flag for Belgium and North Africa in a World Cup semi-final.

Belgium celebrate Nacer Chadli's 95th minute winning goal against Japan 

Chadli, too, has been another player unfortunate in his portrayal and was a shock inclusion in Martinez’s side having missed most of West Brom’s season with an injury. Aged 21 he represented Morocco in a friendly but since committed himself to Belgium where he waits to make his 50th cap.

This Belgian side have become a celebration of multiculturalism and immigration from Northern Africa, which is easing feelings of anxiety at home over the consequences of adopting foreign cultures. France are similar too. Kylian Mbappe’s parents are both of African birth and his goals are for the whole of France, the right-wing parties and protestors, as well as the millions of second generation immigrants who were given unbridled joy by his stunning display to knock out Argentina.

France and Belgium boast one of the most talented squads in the whole world, and while whoever scores the winner in Tuesday’s semi-final will not end right-wing debates on immigration, it will point to a successful and rich future that is a celebration of cultural integration that comes together and produces something quite beautiful.

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