Belgium's national team has enjoyed a remarkable rise, and Marc Wilmots has been there to oversee - and inspire - every stage of the climb. He began his coaching journey with the national team in 2009 as assistant to Dick Advocaat, this at a time when Les Diables Rouges were consistently struggling to qualify for major tournaments. But the pace really began to pick up three years later when he became head coach, determined to lead the country's erstwhile underperforming golden generation to new heights.
Led by the former midfielder, who won 70 caps for his country, Belgium duly qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, where the team reached the quarter-finals, and UEFA EURO 2016. In November 2015 they even climbed all the way to the summit of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, a lofty position in which they will end this year.
FIFA.com talked exclusively with Wilmots, who played for the likes of Schalke, Girondins Bordeaux and Standard Liege, about the reasons of this great success and his goals for the upcoming year.
FIFA.com: Mr. Wilmots, Belgium will end 2015 at the summit of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. What are your thoughts on this achievement?
Marc Wilmots: We’re all happy, but it’s not a title. Instead it’s the result of three fantastic years in which we suffered very few defeats and had the second-strongest qualifying campaign on the road to Brazil by taking 26 of a possible 30 points. We then made it to the World Cup quarter-finals and secured 23 of the 30 points available from EURO 2016 qualifying. All in all, it was three years of outstanding work.
How big a part have you played in this success?
More than 40 people in the technical department are working on this project and making the national team tick. I’ve been here for seven years after starting out under Dick Advocaat, who helped set us on the right path when it came to our discipline, enjoyment of the game, tactical approach and training methods. We’ve made improvements in many areas and built a young team. The foundation has been laid; Belgium may be small but we now have a completely different playing philosophy based around attacking football.
As for my part in all this, I’ve yet to see a coach score a goal. 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. I also spend plenty of time talking one-on-one with my players. We want to build a team that doesn’t just play 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 great things; together we’re strong.
So do you consider Jurgen Klopp to be a role model?
I had the same attitude as a player, spurring everyone on towards the finish line. My philosophy is that I want to create seven or eight goalscoring chances in every game. It’s good for morale when you have a coach who (plays positively) and sets his team up to attack; it makes it easier for the players to build up their confidence. Against Italy [in a 3-1 victory last month] we proved that we now belong among the very best. Although we won, what’s important is that we score plenty of goals and concede only a few. That’s a good balance to have.
I’m a little like Jurgen Klopp: very down-to-earth, honest and always straight-talking.
As a player in the Bundesliga you earned the nickname Kampfschwein (‘War Pig’).
I don’t mind that nickname as the fans meant it very positively. We need to have that same team spirit and willingness to push past the pain barrier. As long as my players do that then I’m satisfied. I have no problem as long as they give their all.
Does this mean Belgium are now among the best in the footballing world?
Our aim now is to reinforce our position. We want to be at the major tournaments every two years. We must aim to reach the quarter-finals at the World Cup and the semi-finals at the EUROs. Doing that would be a fantastic achievement.
Could Belgium pull off the greatest coup of all at UEFA 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. 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. Hitting the woodwork, poor decisions – there are so many factors that you simply can’t predict.
You have plenty of remarkable young players within the team. Where have they come from and what’s changed?
Many of our young players rose through the ranks in France, Italy or the Netherlands. Belgian clubs have now changed their approach, believing more in themselves and having realised that they could compete with the other teams in the Champions League even if their budgets are not so large. We have put our faith in this young generation; although that wasn’t the case before, that’s just the way it has to be. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t give youth a chance. The Belgian league is perfect for spending the first two or three years playing and learning; after that, you can move elsewhere. Many of my current group of lads now play for many of Europe’s top clubs. That’s a remarkable improvement.
There’s no doubt that we have big ambitions; our aim must always be to reach the (EURO) final.
The U-17s won World Cup bronze recently. Is that where the next generation of talent will come from?
You can achieve great things if the belief is there. That’s something that has changed in Belgium over the past few years, not just in football but also in tennis, for example. Everyone believes in their own ability. There’s now a patriotism in Belgian sport that not only provides athletes with a confidence boost but also brings the public a great deal of pleasure.
You were still young when appointed head coach of the national team, a role that is usually the last step in a coach’s career trajectory. Do you still want to manage a club at some point?
Definitely – it’s just a matter of when and where. I’ve already been here with Belgium for seven years. I’m open to everything. I’m someone who enjoys a project and always thinks long-term: what do you want to achieve in five years or so? That’s what it’s all about for me. If a job didn’t involve some kind of project, I wouldn’t do it. I can’t accept a role just for the money – I’ve got to have a goal.
How great is the difference between coaching at club level and with the national team?
Being in charge of a club is a completely different job. There’s far less that you can do as national team coach: there are only one or two matches every three months and you can’t afford to make a single slip-up. At club level you have a game every three days, which means you can soon forget about one defeat. You always have the players together, whereas at international level you have to look at who’s playing where for their clubs and which tactics their coaches are using that you may need to incorporate.
The FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala is just a few weeks away. Who will win the award: Messi, Ronaldo or Neymar?
It’s impossible to pick the best from three top players like them. Ronaldo has been in remarkable form for Real for years, always scoring goals, never injured. Messi’s in a similar position, even though he recently had his first extended spell on the sidelines through injury. Neymar has got even better and now seems almost unstoppable. They’re simply playing on another level altogether. The best way to decide the winner of the Ballon d’Or would be to draw one name out of a hat – all three are exceptional.
Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique and Jorge Sampaoli have been nominated as FIFA World Coach of the Year for Men’s Football. How would you describe the three contenders?
I don’t know them; I can only look at how their teams play. It’s hard to pass judgement as each coach has to work in different circumstances. I can’t give an opinion on another coach when I don’t know how they go about their work.
Who’s your favourite to win the award?
If it comes down to success then it has to be Luis Enrique for winning the treble. That’s superb.
What qualities does a coach need to be among the best in the world?
Although winning titles is obviously important, it is not always necessary. You need the right people around you, the right players and the right amount of quality, plus a talented sporting director to make good purchases. Rather than the coach, it’s the many people in the background who make the difference.
Coaches have to work hard to create a good atmosphere within a team. What role can an individual award play in that process?
While a coach contributes five to ten per cent – he has to hire the right people, promote team spirit and make the right decisions in each match – it’s the players who are out there on the pitch. They need to enjoy their football and be tactically astute.