World Cup 2014: How Marc Wilmots got Belgium back together

Belgium open their World Cup campaign against Algeria

Marc Wilmots is a man of contrasting parts. Part one, the one encapsulated in his playing days as Willi das Kampfschwein, the fighting boar, the straight-talking farmer’s son who became an attacker of limited abilities but endless spirit. Part two is more subtle, the reformist politician, briefly an elected representative of the Mouvement Réformateur, the multi-linguist. Together they make a man who has fashioned a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

Three years ago Wilmots took over a side of promise but, one, because of past failings, the country cared little for, run by a federation short of money and ambition. The country cares now. Belgium is behind the Red Devils again, and in a nation where unity is viewed with the suspicion usually reserved for a politician’s expense account in their capital’s European Quarter that is no small achievement. “I have replaced the I, I, I with the we, we, we,” said Wilmots.

On Tuesday evening in Belo Horizonte, Belgium open their World Cup against South Korea with Wilmots calling for them to ‘‘write our own page of history,’’ a reference to the team of 1986, who reached the semi-finals. ‘‘This is the first game in a World Cup for 12 years,’’ he added.

‘‘We see this as a challenge and my players are very hungry. We have done it in qualifying and I am not going to change it because we are at the Woirld Cup. Nobody expected us to get to this point so quickly and we have kept things in perspective. I’m going to stay true to our philosophy and play football. The main thing is at the end of the World Cup we have no regrets.’’

 

Tuesday’s game is eagerly awaited not only in Brussels but by a wider audience: Belgium are the best known dark horses since Black Beauty.

To an English audience, in particular, the side are excitingly familiar, from Thibaut Courtois through Vincent Kompany, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku; a dozen of the squad are employed in the Premier League. It is a talented group but it is also a young one, with only Daniel van Buyten having been to a World Cup. This is a green squad overseen by a green manager. “You cannot buy experience,” said Wilmots. “You have to fight for it.”

It is Wilmots’ first big test as a coach. He has just this qualifying campaign – 10 competitive games and no defeats – behind him to add to a few months as a club manager, but the 45-year-old knows World Cups having fought his way to four, played in three and scored more finals goals than any other Belgian.

His playing career was not quite out of the top drawer but he had admirers; Luiz Felipe Scolari sent him a good luck fax when he began his coaching career at Schalke, and Roy Hodgson knows his capabilities. Wilmots was the decisive figure in Schalke’s Uefa Cup final victory over Hodgson’s Internazionale in 2007.

Belgium begin the World Cup ranked a place below Hodgson’s England, which reflects more where they have come from rather than England being a better side. Belgium slithered down to the 60s under Wilmots’ predecessor, Georges Leekens. Wilmots had been appointed No 2 in the national set-up by Dick Advocaat, who was impressed by his enthusiasm. Leekens had succeeded Advocaat, and retained Wilmots. Like the country, the squad was split between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish. Both barely functioned.

Eden Hazard is the stand-out player from a very talented crop Eden Hazard is the stand-out player from a very talented crop  

Wilmots accepts he has been blessed with the flowering of a generation of talent not seen since the 1980s (he sees it as a happy coincidence as much as any national plan), but importantly he speaks the language of both sides – and the new generation. In a six-minute film posted on YouTube he provides a guided tour of Belgium’s base outside Sao Paulo, switching between the country’s two languages – his mother was a French speaker, his father Flemish. It offers a glimpse as to why his players adore him. He paces around the complex, chatting easily, pointing out the training pitches, the dining room and even the office. It is relaxed and straightforward, much the way he likes to run things. 

There is a simple foundation to his coaching – field your best players where they are playing well for their clubs. With Zenit St Petersburg’s Axel Witsel anchoring midfield ahead of a solid central defence, he allows his frontrunners freedom of expression: “You have to dare.”

“What is most important is team spirit,” he said.

 “It’s important to honour the value of the team instead of honouring your own personal value and to sacrifice yourself for the team. If everybody has those good intentions, we can have a very good World Cup.”

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone