Hazard and co help Wilmots prove critics wrong

Benoît Noel
Belgium's football coach Marc Wilmots celebrates his team's victory over Croatia during their World Cup 2014 qualifying match in Zagreb on October 11, 2013

Belgium's impressive 2-1 win over Croatia on Friday which assured them of their first appearance at a World Cup finals since 2002 would have been especially satisfying for their young coach Marc Wilmots.

The 44-year-old -- who appeared at four World Cups though he failed to play in the 1990 edition -- was not universally welcomed when he was appointed in June 2012 after an undistinguished time at both Belgian side St Truiden and then Bundesliga outfit Schalke 04 where he had shone as a player and won the 1997 UEFA Cup beating Inter Milan.

Pundits, fans and even members of the federation were sceptical he could turn the fortunes round of the 'Red Devils', whose glory days when they reached the 1986 World Cup semi-finals, where they fell prey to the magical talents of Diego Maradonna, were a distant memory.

However, now with a young generation of immensely talented players such as Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard, and his clubmate Romelu Lukaku, though, he is on loan at Everton, and when fit Manchester City central defender and captain Vincent Kompany as well as Atletico Madrid goakeeper Thibault Courtois they look like they could go far in Brazil next year.

"Without a doubt in terms of pure talent this squad is stronger than the one that reached the semi-finals in 1986," said former Belgian international right-back Georges Heylens, capped over 50 times and who played in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

Wilmots, capped 80 times, is credited with not only giving the young group confidence in themselves as well as enjoying a close relationship with his players but also at the same time being capable of instilling discipline to the squad.

However, while there are those who believe the present squad can emulate their predecessors such as Enzo Scifo, Leo Clijsters, Eric Gerets and Jan Ceulemans in reaching the last four, there are others who urge caution about what they can achieve in Brazil.

One of those is Robert Waseige, the last coach to guide Belgium to a major finals, the 2002 World Cup.

"While everything appears to be going well today, in football things can change very quickly," said the 74-year-old.

"First of all one has to get through the first round (the group stage) which is never easy and then if one has Brazil as second round opponents, the adventure can come to an end very quickly......thus I say calm down!"

Waseige knows from bitter experience what he is talking about as in 2002 his side -- captained by Wilmots -- were knocked out in the second round by Brazil.

That side was not the equal of the present one but Wilmots will be mindful of that experience and will no doubt talk about it to his young 'Devils' -- for the moment, though, he and they can bask in the moment of ending Belgium's absence from the top table of world football.