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Roundtable Part 1: Previewing Belgium and the USA’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament runs with Swish Swish

We haven’t really had a true Belgian perspective on the Washington Mystics. Until now!

Emma Meesseman is practicing in Oostende, Belgium, not too far from her hometown of Ieper.

Since Emma Meesseman was drafted to the Washington Mystics in 2013, fans have had a chance to see her play at a very high level over the years. Though multiple contributors have covered her time with the Belgium women’s national basketball team over the years, we haven’t really seen a perspective on how fellow Belgians view her.

Furthermore, Belgium isn’t quite like most Western European countries around it. In France, their southern neighbor, people speak French. In the Netherlands, their northern neighbor, people speak Dutch. Belgium is in between.

Most Belgians or nearly 60 percent, including Meesseman, speak Dutch as their native language, like Dutch people do in Amsterdam. But over 40 percent of Belgians also speak French as their native language like French people in Rouen. I’ve been to Belgium several times and can say first hand that being in Antwerp and Mons can sometimes feel like being in two different countries because of the primary language people speak. Admittedly, language is a political issue there. But I’ll leave it to the political sites to cover that.

All of that said, sports is one of those things where things like this are put aside. Yes, Belgium does have plenty of politics, in particular around language, but I’ve rarely, if ever seen a Belgian francophone wishing they were French. And I have rarely seen Belgian néerlandophones (or the Flemish) wishing they were living in the Netherlands instead.

My most recent trip to Europe was in November 2019 where I spent about one week in Belgium. Along the way, I met Stéphanie Lahaye, the founder and Managing Editor of Swish Swish, a Francophone Belgian women’s basketball site.

I also met Florian Madarasz, a contributor to Swish Swish. He is also the man behind the Mystics BE Twitter account. He is part of a growing group of Francophone WNBA fans who run Twitter accounts covering the WNBA from both Belgium and France. In fact, there seems to be a French or Francophone Belgian account for nearly, if not every WNBA team!

With the Belgium women’s national basketball team playing in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament from Feb. 6 to 9, I felt that this was a good time for us to get a Belgian perspective on Meesseman, Kim Mestdagh and the Belgian team as a whole. How do they appreciate the game? Do they see Meesseman as the Mystics’ franchise player? I can write about these topics all day long, but at some point, it’s better that you get their perspectives, not mine.

So that end, we have a roundtable with Stéphanie and Florian in two parts. This is the first part, where we focused mostly on the Belgian national team and Ariel Atkins’ role for the USA Basketball women’s national team.

The first part of our roundtable is below, and I hope you enjoy!

Bullets Forever: Emma Meesseman and Kim Mestdagh will be Belgium’s top contributors in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. But the Cats have a very strong point guard rotation with Majorie Carpreaux and Indiana Fever draft pick Julie Allemand. What do you expect to see from their play in the qualifiers?

Florian Madarasz: I’m not really objective here because Julie is my favorite player on the Belgian Cats. She’s a very versatile point guard mostly known for her passing abilities (some very flashy). But Allemand’s also a very reliable three point shooter. At first she was a bit shy in scoring, but now, she has become more and more aggressive.

Allemand’s only 23 and from my standpoint, she’s now one of our leaders and main player. I truly hope to see her in the near future in the WNBA and I think she has what it takes to play there.

Carpreaux is in the latter part of her career but she’s really important in the locker room. Like Mystics alumna Ivory Latta, Capreaux always has a fully-charged battery and she brings that energy off the bench. Plus she’s really funny.

Stéphanie Lahaye: Julie is able to create a lot of movement. She has a reliable shot and physically, she’s amazing! Her defense is also very good. Like Florian said, I’m a big fan of Julie, she’s very important for the Belgian Cats. And she is still at the beginning of her career :)

Marjorie is a real fighter! She’s also the player who plays the best with Ann Wauters: their complementarity on the court is incredible. Marjorie also brings a lot of fun on the court, which is always nice to watch. And when she plays, she’s always 100%.

We are very lucky to have these two players on the Cats.

BF: The toughest opponent in Belgium’s group appears to be Canada, who have New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse and Indiana Fever center Natalie Achonwa since they have the most familiar names for American WNBA fans. What will Belgium need to do to pull out the win?

Stéphanie: Belgium must stop Nurse from shooting too much and hope she doesn’t have a good day, but also keep an eye on Achonwa and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe. These two players have played in Europe in recent years and are familiar with the Belgians’. I still think the Cats, at their best level, can win against Canada.

Florian: In my opinion, Belgium doesn’t really have defensive players who can shut-down a player like Kia Nurse. The Belgians have to do it collectively and defend as a team. On the offensive end, I think Belgium can’t change their way of play. They should just play their game like they always do, pass the ball and search the open player. Canada is a really tough one but we must be confident in our game.

BF: Japan and Sweden are the other members of the group Belgium is in. Both also have WNBA talent on their rosters. Belgium lost to Japan in the World Cup group stage back in 2018, but we don’t recall a recent head-to-head match against Sweden. Which of these two teams presents Belgium with the biggest challenge?

Florian: In general, I’d say that Japan, with the mentality we know, the collective attitude they always have, is a tougher opponent. But in this context, the main challenge will be Sweden.

Because Japan is already qualified in the group so it’s crucial to be above Sweden in the standings (since I don’t see Canada missing out on the Olympics). So the game against Sweden will have a great deal in the qualification and it’s really important not to lose this one.

Stéphanie: Clearly, I’m much more afraid of Japan than I am of Sweden. Japan is one place behind Belgium in the FIBA rankings. They have a simple, unadorned but very effective game. Sweden is, for me, one level below Belgium.

BF: Let’s switch gears to the USA because Ariel Atkins will play for the Americans in Serbia. What kind of performance do you feel she needs to deliver to make her case to be on the Olympic team this summer?

Stéphanie: t’s hard to say because Team USA has so much talent! I think finding people who score is not a problem for the team so I think Ariel can bring her defensive intensity and most importantly, her motivation. She’s been a real driving force for Washington several times and that’s what she has to show against Serbia.

Florian: Ariel is a really talented player but she’s not really flashy so I don’t know if she’ll make the cut for the final roster of Team USA. But her role could be the same as her role with the Mystics : a fantastic 3 and D.

In my opinion, Atkins could have been in the conversation for Defensive Player this year and she’s a hell of a shooter. If Team USA head coach Dawn Staley needs more 3 and D players, Atkins could be in the team and it would be a real plus for Team USA.

Team USA’s roster is full of ball dominant players. If they can also get a guard who is used to playing off the ball more like Atkins, it could help the balance of the group.

In our next part, which will go out Wednesday, we will talk about Meesseman’s impact on the Mystics and more!