Set to kick off their 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ campaign against Algeria on 17 June in Belo Horizonte, Marc Wilmots has sent a shot across the bows of his star-studded Belgium squad, declaring “no-one is guaranteed to start”.
Arguably enjoying a greater depth of talent than any Belgium coach in FIFA World Cup history, ex-midfielder Wilmots, who was selected for four editions of the global showpiece between 1990 and 2002, is determined to take full advantage. The last Belgian to score at the finals – he netted the clincher in a 3-2 group win over Russia at Korea/Japan 2002 – Wilmots’ main mission has been to foster a sense of togetherness in his squad.
"I tend to focus just as much on those that aren’t playing," the 45-year-old told FIFA.com. "I want my substitutes to show the same level of desire as the starters." He then added that “half our winning goals in the qualifiers were netted by substitutes”.
Never less than fully committed as a player, Wilmots has also been swift to put in place a framework of rules and regulations for his young charges to follow, noting that “any man that doesn’t respect them will not be selected”.
I’ve 23 players to work with and no-one is guaranteed to start. I’ll make my decisions based on what I see from them in training.
This level of discipline and togetherness will perhaps face its greatest challenge in the sheer competition for places out wide, with six players in the frame for just two starting berths. During qualifying, only Kevin de Bruyne was able to nail down a spot in Wilmots’ XI, the 22-year-old returning that faith by supplying four goals and four assists. “I’m sure that the way we’ve gelled as a team will help us achieve our potential,” said the Wolfsburg creator.
Perhaps surprisingly, given his status at club side Chelsea, Eden Hazard has so far failed to cement a starting position. What is more, Hazard’s display in Les Diables Rouges' last warm-up match, a 1-0 victory over Tunisia, displeased Wilmots, who took the opportunity to voice his dissatisfaction: “If one player doesn’t perform well I’m not worried. I’ve 23 players to work with and no-one is guaranteed to start. I’ll make my decisions based on what I see from them in training.”
Also in the frame for roles on the flanks are ambitious duo Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli, though the greater versatility of fellow contenders Adnan Januzaj and Kevin Mirallas arguably gives them an edge. Januzaj is able to perform across midfield and attack, while Mirallas could provide an alternative to Romelu Lukaku at centre-forward.
Despite the fierceness of the competition, it will, according to the players, remain healthy. “Only a sense of camaraderie will allow us to perform well at this World Cup,” insisted Everton’s Mirallas. “Most of us have known each other for ten or 15 years, and I believe this will make a difference.”
Nor has Chadli rarely felt so at home within a squad. “The atmosphere could not get any better,” said the Tottenham Hotspur man. “We’re all friends and I hope we can keep it that way for as long as possible.”
“The mood in the camp is good, there’s a good vibe around the place all the time,” confirmed Mertens, a friend of Chadli from childhood. Discipline, togetherness, competition for places and a positive atmosphere… could Wilmots have found the recipe for Belgian success?