After stepping in as caretaker coach of the Belgian national team following the surprise departure of Georges Leekens, former assistant Marc Wilmots wasted little time in putting his stamp on the Diables Rouges. Now, four months after signing a two-year deal to take the job full-time, the former Belgium midfielder is working hard to get the best out of a golden generation that has yet to fulfil its promise.
With four points from their opening two qualifiers, Belgium travel to Serbia with the tag of genuine outsiders for a place at Brazil 2014. And, ten years on from their last appearance on the world stage at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™, the Belgians are finally showing signs of re-establishing themselves as a continental force.
However, potential alone is not enough for a perfectionist like Wilmots, who outlined his ambitions for his talented side in a typically frank interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: In 2010, you told us you wouldn’t have returned to coaching if Dick Advocaat hadn’t asked you to be his assistant in 2008. Four years after accepting his offer, do you feel you made the right decision?
Marc Wilmots: Dick approached me at a time when Belgian football wasn’t giving me the opportunity to work. Without him, I would almost certainly have taken my career in a different direction. Together, we started the process of rebuilding. We had to create a new group, with a new mentality and desire to succeed. My love for the Diables Rouges has never gone away. I played in four World Cups and captained the team at the 2002 finals. So, seeing the stadium full for our last three home games felt like a great victory. The Belgian public has rediscovered its love for the national team, people are proud of the players and they have smiles on their faces once more when they come to the stadium. It’s a source of great pride, as it’s all the result of a process that started in 2008.
When you become a coach, does the pressure to succeed take away some of your passion for the job?
The pressure is always greater in the national team, that much is true. There are no second chances, and you have to win on the day – not before, not after. Since becoming head coach, I’ve changed the way I work with the staff and members of the federation, and I want to give everyone confidence. It’s not about pressure, but desire. And, above all, respect. It all starts with respect.
I want us to assert ourselves, to have no fear and to not feel smaller than our opponents. I want good football, with lots of movement and chances.
What exactly is your method?
I’ve put my own stamp on the team. I know where I want to be and which route I should take to get there. My approach is based on a vision and philosophy of the game shaped by my experiences and beliefs. I want us to assert ourselves, to have no fear and to not feel smaller than our opponents. I want good football, with lots of movement and chances. But, at the same time, I don’t want us to be naive. All the work I do is about finding that balance. The job of a national team coach is to analyse his group and get the best out of it. Let's face it: you can't forge an understanding among your players in just a couple of training sessions. So you have to try to put the players in the same tactical systems that their clubs use, wherever possible. A huge amount of background work goes into analysing how each player plays for his club, where he is most comfortable and how to put him in his best possible position for the national team, while respecting the overall balance of the side. You need to keep continuity. I’ve implemented a 4-3-3 system, as I feel that’s what best suits this team. We should use it as a base on which to build.
Before you were given the job full-time, you took charge of two games, against Montenegro and England, as caretaker. How did you handle that period?
There was only a week between Leekens’ departure and my first match, so I didn’t change anything. I built on the foundations already in place. I was frank with the players, and said to them: “Look, I’m doing these two matches for free, and if things don’t work out after that, it’ll be game over for me. You, on the other hand, have a goal, and that is to get to Brazil.” After that, they showed desire and reacted superbly. They were very committed in the two matches, both tactically and physically. Then, the Monday after the second match, the federation called to tell me that the players wanted me to carry on.
This ‘golden generation’ has shown plenty of promise since 2008, but at times it has also flattered to deceive. Has the time come for the players to deliver on their potential?
The talent is there, but our opponents, like Croatia, for instance, are further ahead in terms of their collective maturity and experience. This generation will shine at their brightest in the years to come, as they’re still young and can improve a lot. The likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Christian Benteke are only 20 years old and are not yet established regulars for their clubs. We have to be realistic and give them time. I’m not speaking for myself when I say that, because as I said, my life won’t change if I’m not here tomorrow. We’ve managed to build a group of 25 players who are moving forward, but it’s going to be tough all the way to the end [of the qualifying competition]. We need to treat our ten remaining matches as cup finals if we are to qualify; we must stay humble and realise that it will all be decided in matches nine and ten. If we go through the play-offs, our experience as a team will be much better and so, too, will our chances of reaching Brazil.
You enjoyed a comfortable 2-0 away victory against Wales, and dominated in your 1-1 draw with Croatia. Are those performances a sign that the team has grown in maturity?
Don’t forget that we also conceded two goals in ten minutes [in a recent 4-2 friendly victory] against the Netherlands. So, when the Belgian media started getting excited after the victory, I quickly moved to calm everyone down. We mustn’t get carried away. At the top level, you have to play perfectly to win matches, and that’s difficult. But the desire is there. I really enjoy helping these young lads to develop, with Timmy Simmons and Daniel Van Buyten as my lieutenants. They know me, they’ve played with me and they’ve had me as their captain.
Do you think your next match, against Serbia, will be pivotal in the players’ coming-of-age process?
No match is more crucial or revealing than another. We play for three points everywhere, every time. I’m waiting to see how the players react in Serbia, but beyond that there are still a lot of points to play for, so it’s not a decisive match. We have to go there in the same frame of mind, and try to dictate the tempo. We’re going there to win and play our own game. That’s the only possible objective we can have with this generation of players.