Meet the Mets’ Most Unlikely Fans—the No. 1 Belgian Jeff McNeil Fan Club

During MLB's London Series, a pair of Belgian fans drew attention for their particular interest in Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil. Here's how they came to their peculiar decision to love New York's less glamorous club.
McNeil and the Mets’ underdog appeal landed them some fans far away from Queens.
McNeil and the Mets’ underdog appeal landed them some fans far away from Queens. / David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
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At last weekend’s London Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, the cameras scanned the crowd, and they found a curiosity. Among the thousands at London Stadium was a couple with a Belgian flag that read “Jeff McNeil #1 Belgian Fan Club.” The phrase raised a few questions—starting with who and how and why

Here are the answers. Christian Jacob and his girlfriend Ilse Leemans are from Antwerp. They have no meaningful personal connections to New York City. But they love the Mets—and especially second baseman Jeff McNeil. They realize that Mets fandom is a curious hardship to opt into and that McNeil is not exactly the biggest name on the team. But that’s just fine with them. 

Jacob, 54, found baseball when he began playing as a child. Antwerp is one of the few Belgian cities where baseball has any kind of presence, he says, due to American sailors who brought it to the port city after World War II. A first baseman, he fell in love with the sport, a passion that has continued long after he stopped playing. Leemans, 51, had never watched baseball until she met Jacob. She now loves the sport as much as he does, and the pair watch as many games as possible, despite the difficult time difference. (They admit that West Coast games are trying.) But last weekend finally gave them a chance to see their beloved team closer to home. They were rewarded with a 6–5 win on Sunday, including a 2-for-4 performance from McNeil, who supplied a key hit in the ninth inning. 

After returning home from London on Monday, Jacob and Leemans spoke with Sports Illustrated about getting through losing seasons, picking a favorite player all the way from Belgium and more. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: How does a couple from Antwerp become Jeff McNeil’s #1 Belgian Fan Club?

CHRISTIAN JACOB: I played baseball since I was six or seven years old. Most of my fellow players were Yankee fans, because they were so popular at the time, but I didn’t like it. There was no connection for me. And then I found out—because it was pre-internet—about the Mets. The colors, everything, it suited me. I always liked the underdog. I have a soccer team who is also an underdog kind of team. So that’s the reason I chose the Mets. Then I went to Miami in the 1990s and I saw Mike Piazza play, and I was sold, I was sold completely. That was the first time I saw the Mets in real life. And the thing with Jeff McNeil is my girlfriend’s choice.   

ILSE LEEMANS: I found him cute, and he’s a little bit of an underdog, too.

CHRISTIAN JACOB: Yes, it’s somebody that we can familiarize with, because he’s such a hard-working player. You never hear from him, he’s not the big guy, he doesn’t like to walk into the pictures and stuff. He’s a guy who’s doing his job. So she liked him a lot, and for me, it was easy to follow him. He’s somebody you can rely on. You see the passion—I recognize it in him—when he’s mad or he’s not playing well.

SI: You mentioned that you like an underdog, but as I’m sure you know, the Mets are kind of an interesting choice for a neutral observer. That’s just a lot of angst and frustration to choose.

CJ: I don’t believe in a team that doesn’t have problems. There’s always, ‘It’s not this season, it’s going to be next season.’ You can see it all the time. We’ve had so many stupid things that we did, the Bobby Bonilla thing, and so on. I feel with the Mets... I don’t like people who are used to winning all the time, because if they lose one day, they’re the most horrible to have around. And if you know what losing is, I think you’re much more mature in life, you accept defeats, stuff like that. It’s more like my life. Ups and downs.

SI: How did you react when you first saw they were going to play in Europe?

CJ: We directly booked from day one. No questions, booked, and here we are. It was a dream. A dream again, I should say, because we had the chance over the last two years to go two times to New York City. The last one was last June. We stayed for 10 days in New York and watched seven games. All our holiday was Mets, nothing else… It’s a little bit surreal for us, because we’re just normal, working class people. We have to save a lot to be able to make these trips, because they’re very, very expensive, ticket-wise. And it’s sometimes crazy to see the prices inside the stadiums. It’s mind-blowing. Here, for soccer, the ticket for my team would cost the same as $12, and those would be great seats. The most expensive drink you could possibly buy would be champagne, a whole bottle, for $50. At Citi Field, we had two drinks, and it was $50. But we are saving now for our next trip to New York. 

IL: When we first went to New York, we said we had to do something really special, and so that’s when we made the flag. 

CJ: Yes, it’s a little joke, “#1 Belgian Fan Club,” because I don’t think there are Belgian Mets fans. All the time that I’m on Twitter, nobody’s replied to me from Belgium. It’s all Americans or from the UK and one French guy. And the #1 is also for his jersey number. It’s just a funny way to draw attention.

New York Mets second baseman Jeff McNeil's fan club
McNeil's wife, Tatiana, poses with Leemans with the now-famous flag. / Courtesy of Christian Jacob and Ilse Leemans

SI: And it did catch his attention, right, with him signing it for you? 

IL: Yes, after batting practice in New York, he saw the flag and he came over and signed. 

CJ: I think it was because it made him smile. And to see him smile on the field when he was focused—oh, my. You see him walking by, he always has the same focused face, but he really smiled. We were like little children. 

IL: This time, he saw the flag again and recognized it, he said to me, and he signed a baseball. 

SI: How are you feeling about the Mets’ season right now?

CJ: There are two kinds of fans. You have the fans who criticize, and you have the fans who try to explain or understand when somebody has a bad day. The ones who complain are the ones who made their expectations too high—you know, new owner, new money. They think that money can buy everything. But I know from soccer. You have famous clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, and they don’t win everything even though they’re the biggest clubs. I like the owner, Steve Cohen, because he’s so down to earth. He’s a real people guy… That’s something I don’t see in the Yankees owner or the Braves owner. I believe in that. And I don’t need to win the World Series. That’s not my goal. It’s have a fun season, and if we reach the playoffs, that’s even better. I don’t know if that’s a good attitude for Americans, because Americans like to win. For me, I find that if you lose, the next time you win, it makes the experience twice as big.

But yes, it’s a bad season, and nobody can pinpoint, ‘It’s his fault,’ or ‘It’s his fault’ or ‘It’s his fault.’ It’s just something, and the bad luck with pitching has made a big difference, too. 

Emma Baccellieri


Emma Baccellieri is a staff writer who focuses on baseball and women's sports for Sports Illustrated. She previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and Deadspin; and has appeared on BBC News, PBS NewsHour and MLB Network. Emma has been honored with multiple awards from the Society of American Baseball Research, including: SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in historical analysis (2022), McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award (2020) and SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in contemporary commentary (2018). A graduate from Duke University, she’s also a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.