Marc Wilmots enjoyed something of a trip down memory lane in 2014. The Belgium coach steered his charges to the quarter-finals of the FIFA World Cup™, a tournament he savoured on four separate occasions in his youth between 1990 and 2002.
The former midfielder was therefore more than happy to sit down with FIFA.com to reflect on a thrilling year and Belgium's Brazilian adventure, as well as the future of his golden generation, his life as a coach and his favourites for the FIFA Ballon d'Or.
**FIFA.com: Who is your pick as the best player of 2014?
Marc Wilmots: **I initially voted for Arjen Robben, Manuel Neuer and Thibaut Courtois, so for me it's Neuer. He's the complete goalkeeper and, as far as I'm concerned, the best in the world. He had a perfect season, nearly won everything, and he's consistent while making lots of progress. He's the first distributor of the ball for his team and he's really the ultimate modern goalkeeper. In addition to what he did with Bayern, he led Germany to the world title. So I think that, over the past year, we should reward a player who stopped goals, rather than the usual choice of going for players who scored them.
**As a former attacking player yourself, are you not more impressed by the feats of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?
**Yes, of course. Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest professionals on the planet, and he puts away 40 goals every season. The problem is that you almost grow used to it. Messi had a more difficult year due to injuries, although he still reached the World Cup Final. But what are we talking about here? Both of them are tremendous players who remain consistent, win titles and are still young. You get the feeling that they've been on a whole different planet for several years. But, that said, Manuel Neuer also has a superb track record in terms of statistics.
**When you were a player, who impressed you the most?
*Ronaldo, the Brazilian. With Il Fenomeno*, it was just the same as with Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi. He was a goalscoring machine who combined technique, speed and consistency in his performances. It's a shame that injuries caught up with him, with his patellar tendon starting to play up. What impresses me about Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi is that they're never injured, but that's not just luck – there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes. It's all about taking care of your body, being utterly professional and living for your career, and all that in addition to their physical qualities, mental strength and outstanding talent. Put that together and you get players who will go down in the history of football.
Eden Hazard has said he wants to reach that same level. What are your thoughts on that?
Eden is progressing at an excellent rate for the moment, and I hope he is ambitious to reach that level. He just needs to be more clinical and improve his finishing. He showed at Lille that he could score 20-odd goals a season, and that's where he needs to improve in order to help his team out at key moments. But it's also about how a team plays which makes that possible. Eden is still young – he's 23 and he has lots of ambition, which is good. I wish him all the best with it.
**Turning to your colleagues, who do you think deserves to be named coach of the year between Carlo Ancelotti (Real Madrid), Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid) and Joachim Low (Germany)?
**Personally, I like Diego Simeone a lot. When you look at the squad he has, it's clear that he's getting the very maximum out of their potential. He has a very settled team that's difficult to beat and very stable in defence. He also has good instincts when it comes to finding the forward they need, like with Falcao or Diego Costa – someone who can make the difference. Simeone achieved a level of success no one expected of him, by reaching the final of the Champions League and winning the Spanish title ahead of – let's not forget – Real Madrid and Barcelona. He truly had an extraordinary year, as he has for the past three years. There's a sense of continuity with what he's doing.
**In terms of the best goal, do you have a favourite for the FIFA Puskás Award?
**I'd go for James Rodriguez. He's got his back to goal, and what amazes me is the instinct he has to face the play when he receives possession and direct the ball with his chest before unleashing a fantastic volley – and all that during a World Cup. His shot was unstoppable. Everything was perfect – the execution, the idea and the control. What made the difference was the fact that he'd read the situation, analysed it and made a decision before he'd even received the ball. As a result, everything went quicker. That ability to think quicker than others is part of the beauty of football and the sign of a great player.
**What pleased you the most in 2014?
**Our attitude during the World Cup. It's never easy to travel somewhere with 50 to 55 people. Our preparations all went very smoothly and every decision we made turned out well. After that, there were zero problems among our members of staff. We formed a real unit together which was there to represent Belgium. Egos were put to one side and only the squad mattered. We managed to win four games in a row, which is something Belgium had never done before. Then we got knocked out in the quarter-finals by Argentina without having ever really been caused problems, and we had regrets because we could have gone further. We put Belgian football back on the map and did it with the youngest team in the tournament. I think my players picked up a lot of experience. And we also built on our performances during qualifying – overall, we had two great years that lifted us up to fourth in the world rankings from a starting position of 55th. We got the national team back on track and, above all, won over our supporters again.
**The life of a coach is very intense during a World Cup. Was the comedown difficult after the tournament ended?
**No, not really. It was my fifth World Cup overall, including four as a player. I've also worked as a pundit, so I've seen it all from the inside and outside. I've learned to put things in perspective. There are things that are more important than football, and you can recharge your batteries with your family. In fact, for both coaches and players, the hardest thing is to get back down to work again with new goals when you've just gone so close to the summit. When I got back from Brazil, I went straight to Bordeaux to find a base camp for EURO 2016 in order to move forward and keep looking ahead. Life doesn't stop and we're still hungry and working on every detail to ensure we perform well.
**Is the toughest challenge now to build on your positive results?
**You always need to do that, but it depends on several factors – players can lose form or pick up injuries etc. We don't have a core of 70 to 80 players; it's more like 30 to 35, and we also have some good players in the U-21s that we're trying to integrate into the senior side. Either way, we'll need to fight to qualify. It's over 30 years since we last qualified for a EURO and made it to two consecutive tournaments, so I know it'll be difficult. After that, during the tournament, it all comes down to moments. Everything can change in a heartbeat. Germany could have been eliminated by Algeria, who had three chances and didn't put them away. I want to qualify us for the EURO, and that in itself would be something unique, but we'll be ambitious to do better there. After reaching the quarter-finals at a World Cup, getting to the semi-finals of the EURO would be exceptional.
**Having so many talented players at your disposal must make your life easier, but can it also make it more complicated sometimes?
**We're forgetting something. Look at the core of players available to Germany, Spain, Italy or France – they have no reason to envy us. There are lots of other teams with talented players. It all comes down to desire and, like I always say, "the pain of suffering". You have to fight as hard as you can, and that's what my players have been able to do, despite their talent. Hard work and team spirit are important qualities as well. Give me 11 talented players and I won't be able to get the job done. Give me a well-functioning team and I will, especially with players on the bench who think the same way. If we have a whole squad which still thinks like that, we'll be able to get results, but if the players only think about ourselves and their talent… talent alone is not enough. You need hard work and professionalism to go with that. You have to really know every detail of your profession. And then there's experience, which takes time. This generation has that, and will have it for another seven or eight years.
**How do you see your Belgium side evolving?
**We went back to basics to have more solid defensive foundations, and we conceded very few goals. Because of that, our opponents have begun looking at us differently. They sit back and try to catch us out on the break. Our philosophy has changed. Belgium look to dictate play now; we're ambitious and come at our opponents.