When ex-Belgium attacking midfielder Marc Wilmots took on the national team job in June 2012, the Red Devils were living their own version of purgatory. Ten years had elapsed since their last appearance at a major international competition and with the team having slumped to 54th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, their future looked anything but rosy.
Nor did the arrival of the young and inexperienced Wilmots generate much enthusiasm, despite the emergence of an exciting new wave of Belgian talent.
And yet, less than two years later, the Belgians find themselves close to paradise, having produced some compelling football to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ without losing a match, a near-spotless record that has helped them climb up to a heady sixth place on the global ladder.
The winner of 80 caps in a distinguished international career, the 44-year-old coach is not about to get carried away by his side’s sudden resurgence, however, as he explained in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com at last December’s Final Draw at Costa do Sauipe.
FIFA.com: Belgium collected 26 points out of a possible 30 in the qualifiers. Was the campaign easier than expected?
Marc Wilmots: We approached the matches as if we were playing ten finals. We let in 15 goals in the qualifying competition for the last UEFA EURO tournament, which was too many. In response to that, I set up the team my way and made it more compact so that we could limit the number of chances opposing sides could create against us. Everyone did their bit and we improved as a unit. We got a good result in Serbia in our third match. We won 3-0 but we could have conceded a couple early on. As for the rest of the campaign it was tough right till the end.
That game in Belgrade was the first major milestone on your journey to the world finals.
It was only our third match. We beat one of our direct rivals away from home and scored three goals without conceding, which was a big blow to their morale. My minimum objective was to make second place and the play-offs, and we just kept on going. We took maximum points against Macedonia and we kept picking points up in every game. In the end we scored 26 out of 30 and finished nine clear of Croatia, which shows how consistent we were all the way through the qualifiers.
If you had to pick one key match from the preliminaries, which would it be?
I’d go for our home game against Serbia in June 2013, for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the match between Croatia and Scotland, which was very important, was being played that same night. It was also our last game of the season, which as any coach will tell you, is always a tough one. The players are tired and you have to make sure their minds are on the job. I know all about that from being a player and I knew it wouldn’t be easy at all. So we went to the USA for a training camp, to get our preparations right. It did us a power of good too. We scored two fine victories, beating USA 4-2 and then winning 2-1 at home to a very young and very good Serbia side. I expect to see them in the top 25 of the FIFA Ranking before long.
You eventually clinched your place in the finals with a 2-1 win away to Croatia last October. What did you say when the final whistle went?
I said to myself: ‘That’s it. We’ve done it.’ We’d worked very hard for it and we had every right to savour the moment. Everyone was really hoping to see this young team qualify. The average age is only 24 and they’ve never been to a major competition. We haven’t won anything yet, though, and the tournament hasn’t even started. For me it’s going to be my fifth World Cup. I’ve already got four under my belt as a player. It’s going to be a whole new ball game for them and I hope it will lead to more for them. I also feel that we’ve got the foundations in place for the qualifiers for EURO 2016 in France. This team has a good five or six years ahead of it and it’s very exciting to see the potential it has.
Belgium have been through a lean spell in recent years. How have you and the national football association managed to turn the side around?
It’s been a long and complex process. We’d qualified for six consecutive World Cups up to 2002, at which point Belgian football went into a slump. We’d had three or four coaches come and go and maybe they didn’t take enough risks. Were they too hasty in replacing the more experienced players with younger ones? Did the team maybe lack experience? I don’t know but there are several reasons why we had such a tough time of it. People are always looking for all sorts of excuses, but it’s all in the past now. Belgium are back on track now, and we are doing things differently. We’re looking for perfection in the way we work. The management set-up is very professional, the facilities are superb and the medical staff is world-class. It all helps get the best out of the players. As well as the 23 of them I’ll also have 16 other people working with me. There will be 40 of us in total, all of us are full of respect for each other and working towards the same goal. We’ve also got the national FA and the whole country right behind us. You should have seen the thousands of supporters who packed into the squares of Belgium to watch the big screens on the night we qualified. Tens of thousands of tickets then went on sale for our matches and they sold out straightaway. The entire country is behind the national team and these young kids have given everyone a new lease of life.
What type of coach are you? How would you describe yourself?
I’m a professional, a perfectionist and I’m meticulous about things. That’s what comes from spending six seasons in Germany. I’m a stickler for punctuality, for respecting the way some things should be done in life. The same rules apply for all the teams, from the U-17s to the full side, and anyone who fails to respect them plays no part in the national set-up. I like to see a professional job being done, but I know how to be flexible too and I try to combine work and play as much as possible.
What is your footballing philosophy?
In Flemish we say, Voor verdedigen, which means 'defence by attack'. The idea is to deny the opposition space and chances to score, which takes a lot of coaching and mental strength. In terms of attack, I think you need to create a minimum of five or six chances a game. I prefer to lose a match 2-0 but try to create openings than not try anything at all. I like people who go for it. Belgium have the players to do that and to entertain, which is also very important to me.
You’re known to be versatile when it comes to perming your attacking options and you don’t really have an established striker in the team...
I don’t like to have just the one striker. If he’s not scoring, you’re stuck. I prefer to have a range of options. I like the threat to come from all angles, which is why I play with an inverted triangle, with just the one No6 but two No8s, who can get forward and score. We saw that in Scotland with Steven Defour. Those are the kind of players I need in my system. I want there to be at least five players out on the pitch who say to themselves, ‘I’m going to score today’. And if you’re going to score, you have to want it and take risks. It takes character. You might put one way over the bar but you might get it right on target too. You have to get in there where it hurts. And that means getting into the penalty box.
How far do you think you can take the Red Devils at the next FIFA World Cup?
I know from experience how hard it is to get past the group phase. And once you’ve done that the only thing that should be on your mind is going all the way. But every game’s a final and it could all come down to a penalty or a refereeing decision or anything like that. When we played England in the quarter-finals at Italy 1990 we dominated the game and hit the post twice. We were the better side and then we conceded in the last minute of extra-time and went out. That’s what can happen. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t make the last 16. That’s my first objective. After that we’ll see.