Kusek column: Balog inhales World Cup experience

2014-07-04T17:39:00Z 2014-07-05T15:11:04Z Kusek column: Balog inhales World Cup experience The Billings Gazette

Looking for Alex Balog?

First, find a group of hard-core soccer fans gathered around a large television set or two tuned to the World Cup.

Real soccer fans. Not just those who jumped on the United States' bandwagon in the last couple of months.

Then look for the lanky, friendly gentleman wearing the distinctive black, yellow and red jersey of the Belgium national team.

Chances are, he will be the only person in the room wearing one.

“Just like I was on Tuesday,” Balog said with a laugh.

Then again, Balog might be the only person in Montana wearing a Belgian jersey.

The Montana State Billings men’s soccer coach is a native of Belgium.

And unlike Tuesday when his allegiance was slightly frayed, Balog’s loyalties will be with his beloved national team when it plays Argentina in the quarterfinal round on Saturday.

He’ll be the one rooting against Lionel Messi.

Belgium advanced with a 2-1 extra time win over the United States earlier this week.

“I came to the United States in 2005,” said Balog, who has been with the Yellowjackets since 2011. “This is my home, my job is here. This is where I want to make my life. If we had to lose, losing to the U.S. would have been OK.

“For the U.S. to advance from the Group of Death and reach the knockout round again, it should propel soccer here to an even higher level.”

Now he’s all in with Belgium. “We’ve won four in a row,” Balog quickly pointed out.

“Belgium is split into two parts,” he continued. “In the north, they speak Dutch and in the south, French. There have been some tough times because of the divisions. But with the success of the national team the last two, three years, it exceeds anything political. It has helped build bridges. It brings a country together. The atmosphere is so soccer-minded.”

But Balog is more than a fan from watching afar.

He recently spent two weeks in Brazil inhaling the World Cup experience.

“It was awesome,” said Balog, stringing together a long list of superlatives. “What an unbelievable soccer atmosphere.

“There were no tensions between groups. Fans from different teams would pass by each other in the street, hug and walk on.”

Balog and his group, which included his fiancée, started planning the trip as soon as they found out that Belgium had qualified.

“The opening day of the World Cup, I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Balog. “People just out in the streets celebrating the sport of soccer.”

Balog, in his beloved jersey – a gift from his sister Julia -- attended Belgium’s 1-0 win over South Korea on June 26 in Sao Paulo. “All of the fans, there were no bad feelings among anybody,” he said. “When we played, there was not a lot of sitting down. Just a lot of singing, dancing and celebrating.”

Balog’s group spent the rest of the time hanging out with the rest of the world’s most passionate fans.

“When I played in England, I thought their fans were crazy about soccer,” said the multi-lingual (six languages) Balog, who has also played in U.S., Belgium, Hungary and Greece. “But they have nothing on the Brazilian fans.

“For them, soccer is like a religion. It seeps into every part of their lives. When Brazil plays, everything stops.”

Balog discovered that firsthand one day. “We spent 45 minutes driving around trying to find a place that would help us get gas for our car,” he said. “It’s like the 1950’s where they still have attendants. We were in a city of 20 million people and literally, there was no one on the streets. It took us forever to convince somebody to help us.

“It is so hard to describe the whole experience. With the World Cup, everything happens in great spirits.”

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