A stalwart of three FIFA World Cups™ during his 16-year professional career, Marc Wilmots epitomises the fine crop of Belgian talent that took the baton from the country’s legendary Mexico 1986 generation. Now serving as an assistant coach to the national side, he was an icon of Belgian football in the 1990s, even if he proved a divisive figure before he retired at the age of 34.
Wilmots finally called time on his playing days in 2003, following a second spell at Schalke, the club where he made his reputation, and he promptly returned to Belgium to take up residence in Liege. That is where we caught up with the so-called 'Taureau de Dongelberg' (Bull of Dongelberg), the son of a farmer whose passion for the game has kept him involved in football ever since. His candour remains undiminished too, with Wilmots having never felt the need to please everyone.
”I have no regrets and I’d do everything the same way again,” the former attacking midfielder told FIFA.com. “I’ve always been able to make my own decisions, and they’ve always chimed with my mentality and my sporting ability. People predicted a first-class burial for me at Schalke, and in my first year we won the UEFA Cup.”
Aside from Bordeaux, in fact, he collected trophies at every club where his instinct took him, and although injuries often clipped his wings, he invariably found the mental strength to force his way back. “I was always able to make the most of the lows to climb even higher,” he added with pride.
That robustness was practically his defining feature. “I underwent 13 operations,” he explained, with his back facing the trophy cabinet he has built in his office. “If I hadn’t been strong mentally, I never would have recovered. One of the things I’m proudest of is that I played in the 2002 World Cup at over 33 years of age. That’s proof that with enough willpower you can knock over quite a few mountains.”
Equally telling is the fact that despite having spent five weeks on the sidelines earlier that year, he was called up by then Diables Rouges coach Robert Waseige for the second leg of their European Zone play-off with the Czech Republic. After coming on with half an hour to go in Prague, Wilmots scored the winner from the penalty spot to guarantee Belgium a berth at the global showcase.
The 2002 FIFA World Cup understandably remains one of his fondest memories, not least since he finished Belgium’s leading scorer in Korea/Japan with three goals. “I didn’t want to go; I’d promised that after the qualifiers I’d leave my place to a youngster,” he recalled.
“Waseige convinced me though. I went there in a relaxed frame of mind because I was going to retire afterwards. The match against Russia for a place in the Round of 16 went almost perfectly. The spirit was extraordinary and the criticism in the press brought us together like never before. We ended up rallying everyone in Belgium to the Diables Rouges’ cause. Going out like that was magnificent.” A season later, Wilmots withdrew from the club game too, bidding farewell to Schalke after one final campaign.
Those were the final chapters in a career that had begun 16 years earlier with Sint-Truiden, a team based near to the youngster’s Jodoigne home. “At 17, I was in the side that won the second division and I finished top scorer in the league,” he said. “I experienced promotion with a fantastic set of fans, and at that age that’s just exceptional.”
In the summer of 1988, he joined Mechelen, who were on a high after lifting the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. A Belgian league champion in his maiden season there, Wilmots then left for Standard Liege in 1991 and set about helping his new employers claim their first trophy since clinching the league crown eight years previously. Two seasons later, and at the end of a campaign in which Wilmots registered 22 goals, they could celebrate yet again. “Among my best moments, it’s difficult not to cite the Belgian Cup final with Standard in 1993.”
The midfield schemer was packing his bags again three years after that as he set a course for Germany and Gelsenkirchen outfit Schalke. It was to prove a thrilling new era for Wilmots and more than a little excitement entered his voice as he looked back on the club’s 1997 UEFA Cup triumph. “We were in the final against Inter Milan,” he recalled. “I scored the goal to make it 1-0 at home and in the return game we held out until the 88th minute. That meant extra time and after that the match went to penalties. I got to take the decisive spot-kick; I buried it and we won the club’s first European trophy in our first season back in Europe for 19 years.
"We felt it was ours to win and that luck was on our side, but we really went for it and deserved the victory. Our team had an average age of 30 and it was a team of players much like myself, with lots of hard workers and a real collective effort. That club really helped me make a name for myself on the international stage.”
Though such highs are now behind him, Wilmots is probably busier than ever. “Since 2000, I’ve been running a company along with my wife and a German lawyer that provides sports support services and career management,” explained the 41-year-old, whose role as Belgium’s assistant coach represents his first stint in the dugout since losing his job as an English-style manager with Sint-Truiden in 2005. “I never thought about coming back as a coach until Dick Advocaat came looking for me.”
He has also found time for a brief two-year career in politics since hanging up his boots, bringing that to an end five years ago. “The difficulty of changing professions is finding a new challenge,” he said. “Politics was one and I got asked to back a project aimed at developing sport among youngsters by building links between schools and clubs.”
Elected a senator in June 2003, his entry into the political realm came at the expense of his first coaching assignment, with Schalke. “I only stayed for six months despite having a contract for a year and a half because I’d already got involved in politics," he added. "It came too early but it proved to me that what I’d done as a player I could use on the bench.”
He is back doing exactly that, of course, having stayed on with the national team despite Advocaat’s departure as head coach only a few months into his tenure at the start of April. As well as having the tools for the role, Wilmots clearly takes as much pleasure from his current role as he did with a ball at his feet. “To do this job, you have to be passionate and love the game and tactics,” he said.
“And you have you set yourself higher and higher targets each time. What’s frustrating is that you can prepare everything the right way and field the most scientifically researched line-up possible, but once they’re out on the pitch it’s the players who decide what happens, not you.”