Paris (AFP) – In a country where linguistic and political divides are the norm, managing the Belgium national team is no simple task, but Marc Wilmots is probably better prepared than most to handle the job.
Wilmots travelled to four World Cups as a player and was a key figure in Belgium’s midfield when the country last participated in the European Championship as co-hosts of the 2000 finals.
His five World Cup goals are a national record and, while his managerial experience is limited outside of his current role, the appointment of Wilmots as coach in May 2012 has proved a shrewd decision.
Known affectionately as ‘War Pig’ by Schalke fans for his combative displays in a career that also featured spells at Mechelen, Standard Liege and Bordeaux, Wilmots has masterminded the revival of a nation that had not qualified for a major tournament since he starred at the 2002 World Cup.
Wilmots spent two years in the Belgian Senate with the liberal-leaning Mouvement Reformateur party before resigning as the lure of football proved too great.
He took up a first full-time coaching post at former club Sint-Truiden. Though his time there was short-lived, his career took flight once more in 2009 when he became Dick Advocaat’s right-hand man with Belgium and kept the role under the Dutchman’s successor Georges Leekens.
With Leekens moving on to Club Brugge, the Belgian FA tabbed the multilingual Wilmots, a vital asset in a squad composed of French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish, to unite a team derailed in the past by in-fighting.
“As a coach you have to choose the right methods and make the correct decisions. I’m a little like Jurgen Klopp: very down-to-earth, honest and always straight-talking,” Wilmots told FIFA.com.
“I also spend plenty of time talking one-on-one with my players. We want to build a team that doesn’t play just for itself, so mutual respect is vital. One person is not important. Before it was ‘me, me, me’, now it’s ‘we’. Together we can achieve things; together we’re strong.”
– ‘No dreamer’ –
Fortune has favoured Wilmots’ timing. The wealth of talent at his disposal — Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois — has not been seen in a Belgium side since the 1980s.
Wilmots has instilled confidence in his players while turning Belgium into a force at both ends, although the big question remains whether they can deliver at the highest level.
They reached the quarter-finals at the 2014 World Cup, without really excelling, before falling 1-0 to eventual finalists Argentina.
“I think we were easily the youngest of the quarter-finalists and there is a bright future ahead,” said Wilmots, who is under contract until 2018, after the Brazil experience.
He was courted by Schalke last year but turned down his former club to remain in charge of a Red Devils side generating plenty of excitement ahead of Euro 2016.
“I’m no dreamer. There are plenty of people creating hype around Belgium. I look at where we were three years ago and what we’ve achieved since then,” said the straight-talking Wilmots, refusing to get carried away.
“There’s no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the final. We always want to leave the pitch as winners. I think we’re among the five or six strongest teams in Europe.
“Although our team are still very young, we want to taste success – and that includes the coach! While we’re going to Euro 2016 full of confidence, we also know that anything can happen at a tournament.”
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