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BeNeLook: Scifo and Wilmots caught in Belgian FA chaos

This morning that most dreaded Belgian question reared its ugly head once more. Or not quite. For the language issue is never far from the surface ; indeed the very manner in which the country is governed is intrinsically linked to whether you start the day with ‘Bonjour‘, ‘Goedemorgen‘ or even ‘Guten Morgen‘. Belgium has three official languages. Dutch has always been the most widely spoken but since independence in 1830, it has had a long struggle to have this reality on the ground accepted in legislation. Even major Flemish football teams such as Club Brugge (FC Brugeois), KAA Gent (La Gantoise) and KV Mechelen (FC Malinois) were known by their French names until the 1970s.

Scifo and Wilmots were long-time international teammates and now want to link up as coaches.

Scifo and Wilmots were long-time international teammates and now want to link up as coaches.

At the heart of the story is Enzo Scifo, who is a candidate to succeed new KV Kortrijk manager Johan Walem as the boss of Belgium’s under-21 side. There is just one small problem with the son of Sicilian immigrants – he does not speak Dutch. The Belgian FA (KBVB/URBSFA) would ideally prefer the head coaches of the respective national to be fluent in both major national languages (French being the other). This is exacerbated by the make-up of the u21 side with a majority of Dutch-speaking players not yet fully bilingual. As a result, former Cercle Brugge boss Lorenzo Staelens is shaping up to be a more acceptable candidate. There are a number of factors to consider here, namely language, precedents, football and the overall context.

The question of Enzo Scifo and his lack of command of Dutch is not something that has sprung up overnight. Since becoming a head coach in 2001, he has only coached French-speaking clubs Charleroi, Tubize, Mouscron and Mons. As his coaching career has been a shadow of his illustrious playing days, it is difficult to foresee him taking up the reins at Anderlecht and his ties to the Les Mauves et Blanc rule out their arch-rivals Standard Liège. An international job is, however, different as the head coach (not just of the senior team) has to be seen to be above internal differences and as a representative of the nation.

When Dutchman Ron Jans was appointed Standard coach, he was giving interviews in French inside three weeks. Yes, he was a language teacher and perhaps a national boss would need to be more fluent but owing to his own Italian background, Scifo is already bilingual so there is nothing to suggest he cannot do it. He is old enough to have played under the irrepressible Guy Thys whose linguistic command helped him to swot what can be a notoriously volatile press corps away (just read John Chapman’s work on BBC when he speaks about Robert Waseige’s relationship with the papers). His leading coaching contemporaries such as Francky Dury, Hein Vanhaezebrouck and Peter Maes are all capable of coaching in either language not to mention Eric Gerets and Michel Preud’homme. It is also ridiculous that the Albanian coach of Anderlecht, Besnik Hasi and Dutchman Aad De Mos would be plausible candidates on this basis although that can cut both ways.

There is one way around the problem according to the Belgian FA themselves. If Scifo can be assisted by someone proficient in Dutch then the path is clear. If what has been written so far sounds like an argument in favour of the administration’s standpoint (and the Francophone press in particular has widely condemned the stance), that is not the case. For the FA have turned what is an arguable stance into a bit of a joke with the assertion from board member Guy Craybex that English and French would be sufficient. What an absolute nonsense to require French/Dutch then say that a foreign language will do. English is already too prevalent and dilutes the glorious multilingual landscape of the nation – and that is coming from a Brit.

That said, I would take issue with the main criticism coming from many quarters – the precedent of Dick Advocaat (and the near-precedent of Louis van Gaal). Neither were able to speak French. Advocaat’s appointment, however, came at a low-point for the national team, the status of homegrown coaches and the finances of the FA (more on them later). A foreign manager should not be a necessity for a rich footballing nation such as Belgium and clearly, once you have put a line through the criterium of nationality, it is not a stretch to do so with language. Van Gaal is often mocked for his manner of speaking but he did put a lot of effort into learning Spanish and is competent enough in German and English. I have no doubt he would have applied the same diligence to French.

Wilmots has had his fair share of problems with the Belgian FA in recent times.

Wilmots has had his fair share of problems with the Belgian FA in recent times.

That I have reflected mostly on the language issue is perhaps a reflection of my own background as well as the controversy it has provoked. However, the real story is that this is yet another crisis flaring at the heart of the Belgian FA. First, it was the far from universally popular re-election of chairman François De Keersmaecker, followed by the possible departure of Marc Wilmots to Schalke, his subsequent criticism of the disunity at the FA and the sacking of Frank De Bleeckere, tasked with improving officiating standards, for financial reasons.

Wilmots, already agitated with his divided employers and some who have leaked against him, has implemented a policy of appointing former internationals to coach the youth sides – Walem and Gert Verheyen (u18/u19). Scifo, a very different character and player to Wilmots, fits the bill perfectly and is das Kampfschwein’s chosen man. Wilmots believes his contract gives him the right to a say on the matter but the FA argue his choice is not binding on them. My view that the utter chaos above Wilmots provides him with wriggle room to walk away in eleven months can only be strengthened by this latest development.

The dwindling credibility of the Belgian FA makes it all the more harder to give credence to the theory that they were the real brainchild of the recent revival of the national team. Critically, it must not be allowed to impinge upon this and derail matters on the field.




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