Belgium in Brazil: Marc Wilmots – the great statesman

There was understandably a great deal of trepidation at Brussels Airport when the authorities learned of the final Red Devils Challenge of this 2014 campaign. Before this week, they had included greeting the travelling Dutch with a sea of red on their way south before a glamour friendly in Brussels, filling an entire section of the national stadium with female fans and asking children to sketch their footballing heroes.

They all paled into comparison with the highly ambitious objective of having 10,000 fans descend onto the runway to wave goodbye to the squad as they embarked upon their flight to Croatia. You don’t need to be a health and safety obsessive to understand the potential nightmare this posed to the airport authorities. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that neither did the airport want to play the role of Scrooge given that the impending qualification was Belgian football’s equivalent of all its Christmases coming at once.

Marc Wilmots was understandably delighted after Belgium secured qualification.

Marc Wilmots was understandably delighted after Belgium secured qualification.

Around 2500 lucky fans were afforded the opportunity to bid one final farewell to the team in this qualification campaign. Normally, it’s us ordinary folk who are starstruck at the sight of our idols in the flesh before our eyes. This time, the tables were turned with several players stood on the steps of the plane with their camera phones recording the moment. The fans had risen to their challenge and now it was for the players and the staff to meet theirs and clear the final hurdle.

With this national fervour, you would be forgiven for thinking that it would go straight to the players’ heads like a glass of champagne. That it has not and that this group of players have managed to keep their feet on the ground, at least until the second half in Zagreb, is very much down to Wilmots but before we shower this legend of Belgian football in praise (and that champagne we mentioned earlier), let’s wind the clock back eighteen months.

Doubts were cast over both the decision to appoint Wilmots and the way in which the Belgian FA went about it. You can read mine here.  Of course with the benefit of hindsight, narrow-mindedness has become decisiveness as no-one else was in the frame to take over following the latest in a series of successive crises surrounding the holder of what should be the most prestigious footballing post in the country. Wilmots was also the unanimous choice of his players, with Marouane Fellaini saying at the time: “The coach has shown that he has the head to be the head coach. I would not understand anyone else coming. All the players want him to stay. I hope that the federation will understand that he is important for the team.”

The prior evidence that was Wilmots’ club career as a coach were far from encouraging. Perhaps he will never be someone who is at his best when going to the training ground every morning at seven, taking training, having a say in the buying and selling of players and trying to manage a 40 or 50-game season. What he has succeeded in doing is carving out a niche for himself as the antedote to the hype sweeping Belgium.

Where shall we begin? The challenges, the beer promotions with the t-shirts containing slogans relating to Brazil 2014, the Brazilian flags, the big screens across the country, the soon-to-be demolished national stadium selling out seven times in a row with games no longer needing to be moved away from the capital, the Thibauting fad, the fact that Wilmots was the saviour in the aftermath of Leekens walking out to join Club Brugge – and that’s just inside Belgium. Abroad, people were hailing the coming of an irresistable footballing force that ruthlessly disposes of any opponent in its path, they were rhyming off  a list of stellar names the length of your arm as if they were their times tables and proclaiming Belgium first as contenders and then even winners of next year’s tournament. Wilmots had to keep a lid on both and we did our best to help him.

How has he done it? A combination of his considerable international experience, and in particular his awareness of the pressure that comes with carrying a national team on your shoulders as a player, which helps with the likes of Eden Hazard and his many years spent in the Bundesliga with Schalke 04 as Wilmots himself remarked when I put the question to him during a Twinterview: “I have the German mentality and we will only be satisfied once we have achieved our objective.” He also told a press conference that he was not there to tell people what they wanted to hear, to fan the flames of the optimism nor to pin the hopes on one single player but on the entire squad as a collective group.

The support has been magnificent but Wilmots has not let the euphoria adversely affect his players.

The support has been magnificent but Wilmots has not let the euphoria adversely affect his players.

Belgium did not sail through this qualification period in spite of the fact they now lead Croatia by eight points with one game to go. Often the team were slow out of the blocks, at times Thibaut Courtois had to pull a rabbit out of the hat in goal and many of the victories were hard fought and hard won. Croatia even led in Brussels and a point was an excellent result, even at the time. This was a qualification built on the meanest of defences (not that that’s a guarantee for World Cup success – see Serbia and Montenegro in 2006), a strength of character and game management, for which Wilmots must take a huge amount of credit. He resisted the urge to purge – to cut the seniors from the squad and that decision has paid dividends. As my esteemed colleague John Chapman wrote, perhaps Timmy Simons’ work as a player is done but he and van Buyten have been a bridge with the past and key in preparing the ground for the future.

Worthy though the duo’s contribution has been, Wilmots is the epitomy of a figure who transcends Belgium (popular nationwide, a national hero and very adept in all three national languages) and Belgian football. He scored the goal that confirmed Belgium’s qualification for Japan/Korea in 2002 against the Czechs, he scored Belgium’s last goal in a World Cup (against Russia) and he “scored” the infamous disallowed goal in Brazil in the round of sixteen. Now he has returned his country to international football’s top table.

One of Wilmots’ predecessors, Aimé Anthuenis, summed it up nicely when he said on Radio 1:

“This was superb from Wilmots. When he was unveiled, there were doubts but he proved that he was the right man. This was more than deserved.”

Wilmots’ political career may not have been a great success but over the course of the past two years, he has emerged as the great statesman and would be right at home in the diplomatic service. Just don’t go after only doing 90 percent of the work Marc!

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