Diplomatic Football

Regardless of little local difficulties, the current Belgian Ambassador Rudolf Huygelen, takes time out to chat football and where to find a chilled-out brunch in Brussels…

Article by Andrew Threlfall

Belgravia is one of those parts of London that you can’t really classify as a ‘neighbourhood’. Not easily anyway. For a start there is no street market here, nowhere to exchange views on the town planners’ latest project or last night’s football scores, whilst buying half a pound, or should that be 600g, of Brussels sprouts.

Grandeur is Belgravia’s calling card. Grandeur and parallel lifestyles to London’s other rat raced eleven million. So the sprout challenge? Difficult. Brussels’ accents however can be found here. So long as I “don’t overuse the B word” I’m fine for half an hour with the Belgian ambassador, Rudolf Huygelen, over some mid-afternoon alcohol and cakes I was told. You know the B word? Good, let’s leave it there.

So Rudi, (not Rudolf, he insists on Rudi) welcomes me in and I’m getting a brief history of the oil paintings that adorn the walls working my way up the spiral staircase (quite a workout) where we are going to have a couple of Belgian beers – naturally – and catch up. When I was editor of news at Reuters I covered EU matters (see how I carefully avoided the B word) and often found myself in Brussels with a Rough Guide tucked under my arm – the book, not a homeless person – at a loose end come the early evenings.

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Rudi sighs, puts an arm round me like I just lost a winning lottery ticket and explains why I got it all so terribly wrong: let’s start with brunch he says. Sounds good. The Brussels brunch scene is particularly rich these days he tells me. “Extremely diverse and good value for money even in these days of plummeting sterling. Try Le Balmoral Milk Bar which is a classic Brussels brunch location, with a menu that takes you to the wide-open spaces of North America. Saturday & Sunday is wonderful. Le Garage à Manger is an all you can eat sweet and savoury buffet, seasonal produce and… a lot of love and care! Children are very welcome. When? Saturday & Sunday. Or The Brasserie du Prince d’Orange which, apart from its brunch, this Uccle institution also has the advantage of offering games and a playground for your children, meaning everyone can fully enjoy their relaxing Sunday outing…”

I interrupt, and thankfully, as I’m getting quite hungry his embassy staff bring over some Belgian treats for a late, late lunch.

With great honesty and humour he tells me how his own kids – maybe with one eye on B coming up swiftly on the horizon – absolutely love their trips weekend trips over here; “Most weekends they come and spend with their Dad, here in the former Royal home. As a schoolboy I used to come to London but it had a name for being very expensive. People told me that ‘oh the food is rubbish’, but no, not now, the best restaurants in the world are here. My sons finish their school on a Friday and are taking the Eurostar to come and stay here with me in this residence nearly every single weekend. They are at a boarding school during the week but take the train straight after studies to come over. And why not? This home used to be Princess Victoria, Duchess of Kent’s (the mother of Queen Victoria) residence, so it’s a beautiful place to stay.”

Brussels Beers by Eric Danhier

But let’s talk about the home of Tintin.

“I’d urge everyone to visit Brussels but there’s no specific rush because of Brexit. Brexit hasn’t happened yet let’s face it. As far as the implementation of Brexit is concerned, travel to Brussels will depend upon what the post Brexit regime will be for travellers – for example whether it will be required for people to have passports to travel instead of ID cards or even certain forms et cetera. It might have an impact in the future on tourist numbers but not right now.”

“Your readers should really try to use the parameters which measure everything from hotel performance to our museums to get the best experience. Visit Brussels is a fantastic new way to quickly and expertly prepare and get your best out of your three are four day visit.” We go through the site together and it is absolutely a wonderful tool that is setting the trends for travel operators and your casual visitor like myself to Brussels.

The time has flown by but now the Ambassador is shaking my hand and insisting that he must pop over to the embassy next door to assist with some vital paperwork: “Thibaut Courtois – the national team goalkeeper- did come to the embassy the other day and we had a good chat when he needed a new passport – and yes, it definitely was a big factor him moving from London to Real Madrid that his children lived there already. But me, I’m completely in love with London, it is as fabulous to visit as Brussels, and we’ve given you Eden Hazard of Chelsea, who I think is the greatest footballer in the world right now. I even went to see him play for Chelsea very recently against Liverpool and he scored, I know that here at the embassy we are only two miles from Stamford Bridge where the stadium is. He doesn’t get me tickets no. Haha!! It used to be chocolate and Tintin but now we are famous across the world for our football. We played beautiful football – it was very complete – in the World Cup and we deserved to beat Brazil in the quarter final but, but France were good in the semi-final.”

You’re just being very diplomatic Mr Ambassador, to your French neighbours?

“They were good haha! But….you know Andrew, the Belgian superstar footballers are all surrounded by their management…I tried to host a party for them here at the Embassy after the World Cup when we came third – the best result ever for the national team – but the management around them don’t like it (the idea) so much and for them, who determine where the players go and what they do, it is not so much of an asset to have them come here to the Ambassador’s.”

As I leave and work my way out of the building past those old paintings, I can’t help feel that the players, who have everything these days, missed a trick. riddle_stop 2


Further information: https://unitedkingdom.diplomatie.belgium.be/en/news/interview-ambassador-rudolf-huygelen

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