x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Marc Wilmots galvanizes a galaxy of stars in Belgium team

Belgium have not played in a World Cup since the former midfielder's playing days, writes Ian Hawkey.

Marc Wilmots, right, and his Belgium team currently sit top of qualifying Group A as they prepare to take on Scotland tomorrow night. Marko Djurica / Reuters
Marc Wilmots, right, and his Belgium team currently sit top of qualifying Group A as they prepare to take on Scotland tomorrow night. Marko Djurica / Reuters

There are many ways of measuring the quality of a national team, most of them quite tenuous. What makes country-versus-country football intriguing is precisely that the stop-start schedule sets unique tests for coaches, asking them to find ways of getting the best out of disparate talents in the short periods of time they are allowed to practice together.

For Marc Wilmots, the 43 year old recently promoted to take charge of Belgium's national team, the Red Devils, the examination is especially fascinating. Measure his players by the price tags they carry in their club careers, and he should be in charge of one of the top three or four nations in the world. According to Fifa rankings, however, Belgium are 30th, itself a vast improvement on the position outside the top 50 they were occupying little over a year ago.

For a dozen years, between 1990 and 2002, Wilmots was the warrior epitome of a Belgium who played the role of small European nation well. They were plucky opponents for sides with greater resources at their disposal, regular qualifiers for World Cups, but never considered among the likely semi-finalists.

Wilmots was a leader on the field, a galvanizer, so sporting logic suggested he would make a promising manager.

When the marauding midfielder hung up his boots nine years ago, though, he briefly entered parliamentary politics, aided by his popularity among Belgians who had admired his energy and drive on the field. The experience was not entirely successful, although in a nation as complex as Belgium, with its entrenched divisions between the French-speaking Walloons and the Flemish-speakers, it can only have been a useful apprenticeship in the art of negotiation and compromise, key skills for the coach of a national team.

Wilmots's task is to resurrect Belgium. They have failed to reach any major tournament finals since he was playing for them, a decade of absence that seemed to signal long-term decline.

But what Wilmots, who took over from George Leekens earlier this year, has inherited is a dense concentration of brilliant, and mostly young, talent. If he can make them anything like the sum of their parts, they should be targeting the semi-finals at the next World Cup.

Plenty of Belgians have lately been doing sums on Wilmots's behalf. By the end of the last transfer window, a notable one for the movement of Belgian footballers, a calculation based on the market value of the Belgian squad reckoned it was worth close to €300 million (Dh1.5 billion). Axel Witsel, the sturdy central midfielder, had just moved from Benfica to Zenit Saint Petersburg for around €40m, and Eden Hazard, the dazzling winger-cum-playmaker, was already making a similar fee look good value for the Chelsea, who had recruited him from Lille.

The English Premier League has a sudden appetite for Red Devils. Chelsea envisage a future in which Kevin de Bruyne, 21, and possibly Romelu Lukaku, 19, are boosting their attack and Thibaut Courtois, 20, is their goalkeeper: those three players are currently away from Stamford Bridge, on loan at Werder Bremen, West Bromwich Albion and Atletico Madrid, respectively.

Tottenham Hotspur in the summer added a pair of Belgians, with Moussa Dembele joining from Fulham and Jan Vertonghen from Ajax. Everton brought in the striker Kevin Mirallas to a team where Marouane Fellaini has established senior status. Aston Villa purchased the centre-forward Christian Benteke from Genk.

Vincent Kompany, the captain of the English league champions Manchester City, is a Belgian, as is Thomas Vermaelen, the man with the armband at Arsenal. Wilmots counts them as important allies, mature figures in a dressing room where Leekens encountered some difficulties during his two years in charge. He fell out with the gifted Hazard, for instance, a player who has been frustratingly inconsistent for his country.

Wilmots was not entirely happy with Hazard's performance against Serbia on Friday night, withdrawing him before an hour had been played of what would be an impressive 3-0 win in Belgrade, enough to put Belgium top of their World Cup qualifying Group A ahead of tomorrow's meeting with Scotland in Brussels.

The politician turned manager criticised Hazard for his poor positioning in the early stages of the match - "we were very disorganised and lucky not to go behind" - but was pleased with the way his team's confidence grew.

His Red Devils, with two away wins and a draw - at home to Croatia - thus far in Group A, are on course to take their golden generation to Brazil 2014.

Wilmots, who went to four World Cups as a player, wants to be at a fifth. "I have spent too many World Cup tournaments since I retired commentating on them without a Belgian team there," he said.

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