Brussels: “Fighting boar” midfielder, senator, coach — Marc Wilmots will need the traits of all three of his careers, past and present, to turn Belgium’s World Cup into a success.
By guiding the Belgians past Serbia and Croatia and into a tournament where they long acted as if they had an automatic right of entry, Wilmots has turned himself into a hero at home.
He knows, though, it will all come to naught if heavily favoured Belgium fail to advance from Group H, which is generally considered one of the easiest with games against Russia, Algeria and South Korea.
“It is a trap we will have to deal with,” said the 45-year-old Wilmots, who has never been frightened by challenges.
In the mid-1990s, when few Belgian players ventured abroad, Wilmots went to the Bundesliga to play for Schalke, a club from the industrial Ruhr area with a working man’s ethos that fit him like a glove.
Endearingly, the fans called him “Willi das Kampfschwein” — Fighting Boar — for his relentless passion and hunger.
It paid off for Schalke as it won their only major trophy, the 1997 Uefa Cup, on goals and leadership from Wilmots.
He left his mark on the World Cup, too. He was in four Belgian squads from 1990 onwards but left the best for last. In 2002, he scored three goals, and had a contentious strike disallowed against Brazil in the round of 16.
He claimed the referee admitted to him that he should never have called a foul on the header. It turned into a scandal at home and gives Wilmots something extra to look for in his new World Cup campaign, especially in Brazil.
“I am happy to be going to Brazil a dozen years later,” Wilmots said. “If we could play them later in the tournament, it would even be more special.”
Such a prediction would have sounded like a pipe dream immediately after his playing career ended, since politics beckoned and football seemed to be over for good.
As successful as he was on the field, he was in elections, too, and he was easily voted into the Belgian senate in 2003. Whatever he learned in political niceties, patience was not one of them. In an unusual move, he stepped down and turned his eyes to football again.
His first steps were hardly a success, yet he was picked to become an assistant coach of the national team. By attrition, he moved up.
Once in charge in 2012, he showed poise, cunning and an ability to keep his players happy and disciplined — and then led them right into the World Cup.