Former Belgian captain Marc Wilmots was in Madrid on 17 December to pick up the coveted 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ Fair Play trophy on behalf of his national team. The talismanic Red Devil recently received another award from his government in the form of an appointment to the head of a youth commission, a role that obviously fits in with his desire to "broaden my mind a bit, after twenty years in football". In a revealing interview with FIFA.com, Wilmots takes a look back at his international career, and particularly the past FIFA World Cup.
What did it mean to you to receive the 2002 FIFA World Cup
Korea/Japan Fair Play award on behalf of your team in
I'm very pleased we went out with our heads held high, proud of our performances and achievements. We played positively, and gave our opponents the respect they deserved - which is the basis of fair play. At no time did we play defensively. We went for it, and I think the fans, most of whom were neutral at the start of games, recognised that attitude and got right behind us.
And yet you were in the same group as Japan, the
Before our opening game, the Japanese formed a guard of honour outside the stadium. I'd never seen that before - and they did it again after the match. We'd just forced a draw against the host country and there were even more people than before. In fact, they lined the streets from the stadium all the way back to the hotel! It was really incredible. What comes to mind when I think about the Japanese people is respect and politeness. I saw no hatred in Asia, only love of football and respect. That's a lesson for all of us in the West. In Europe, we would have been spat at, or had stones thrown at us (laughs). That's why the award handed out to the football communities of Korea and Japan is so well-deserved.
Can some of the shocks in Asia be put down to the fact that
it was the first time the FIFA World Cup was staged there?
No, I don't think so. Some players were simply exhausted by the time they got there. If you want a competitive World Cup, you should stop the national championships in April, give the players three weeks off, and then give them five weeks to prepare for the tournament. Then you'd get a level playing field for all the teams. The fact is many of the game's big names had nothing left when the World Cup came around. They were shattered.
Were you shattered?
Not at all. I went into the finals on the back of an injury. I had had an operation on my knee just before the German Cup final. Then I had three weeks to get fit. I had a couple of games where I struggled, before rejoining the Belgium squad for the game against France. I told my coach not to worry. "I'll be back by 4 June," I told him - and I was right. Waseige knows me well: he was my manager for two years at Standard de Liège and three years with the national side. In the meantime, the press were calling for him to throw me out of the squad, saying that I was past it.
You had the perfect start against Japan, because you were
the first to get on the score-sheet.
Yes - and I had three chances before I finally scored. I got on the end of three crosses but the keeper made two great saves and blocked my third volley with his left foot. After he saved that one, I said to myself, right, the next one just has to go in - and I don't care how. Then another cross came over, I gambled that the ball was going over the defender's head and tried something spectacular. That goal was just what we needed. We relaxed and started to play some good stuff - only to let in two goals before earning the point with the equaliser. I think a draw was a fair result and for our first game, against the hosts, it was a pretty good result.
How were you feeling after that game?
The team was relying on my experience to carry them onwards. It was the sixth consecutive time Belgium had qualified for the finals, and each time the team has had players they can call on at decisive moments; the likes of Gerets, Ceulemans, and Pfaff for example. In each generation there are always one or two players who come to the fore and spur the side on. It was my turn in Asia. I was ready for it too. In the German league, I'm accustomed to playing in front of 60,000 fans, and there comes a point when you just get used to the big stage. I can find myself playing against Real Madrid but still remember kicking the ball around the yard in my village in Belgium when I was six years old. Sometimes it does you good to remember where you come from to measure how far you've come.
Against Tunisia, in the second game, you scored
Yes, we went 1-0 up, got pegged back to 1-1 and nearly went out of the tournament.
How do you explain the fact that Belgium had so much
trouble holding on in that game?
We don't know how to play defensively. Our defenders tend to push up in an attempt to close opponents down and win the ball back. It's in our nature to go forward, but when you go forward, you sometimes leave space behind you. The Tunisians are good on the ball and they were able to make use of those spaces. On top of that, it must have been forty degrees that day. The heat took it out of us and we weren't on top of our game. We did well to get away with a point in the end. After the game I told the lads we'd got our poor performance behind us and knew exactly what we had to do against Russia to qualify. We had to win, which meant we didn't have to play tactically - a good thing for us Belgians because we aren't the calculating kind. I said to the media: "Criticise us after the game against Russia," and after that I didn't speak to the press.
How would you summarise the game against Russia?
We were awesome. Johan Walem's free-kick was a work of art, and then I got in on the act. The Russians obviously thought a draw would be enough to see them through. That's why I was so happy with our result against Tunisia, even if I was the only one. Everything was cut and dry - we had to win against Russia to get through.
You said after picking up the Fair Play trophy that Belgium
"had Brazil running scared".
My goal against Brazil was disallowed, but I'll tell you now, if it had been awarded I don't know what could have stopped me. With four goals in four games and England next up… It would have been Mexico 1986 all over again. The whole team was playing better and better. It has to be said that the man of the match in the Brazil-Belgium game was Marcos. First he kept out my left-foot shot and then somehow tipped a right-foot rocket round the post just as I was sure it was heading for the back of the net. The only one he couldn't get near was the glancing header, but the referee saved it for him (laughs).
That referee hurt the whole of Belgium. To err is only human, like I said after the match, but there was no foul. I know refereeing is a tough job, so I guess you just have to accept that those things happen. Then Rivaldo gets on the end of a counter-attack, and they score… I looked over to the Brazilian bench at that point and suddenly they were jumping with joy, whereas a minute earlier their heads were down. That's football - you need the run of the ball at vital moments.
How had you prepared for that match?
Teams are always struck by an inferiority complex when they play against Brazil, and tend to play too deep as a result. We refused to fall into that trap. We decided to get in behind Roberto Carlos and Cafù and take them on where they thought they were strongest. By the end, their 3-5-2 had become a kind of 5-3-1-1… We, the unfancied Belgians, were tactically brilliant that day. We performed magnificently. We might have been knocked out, but we showed what a good team we were - just the right blend of youth, experience and talent.