​With the ‘War Pig’ leading the way, Belgian eyes are blazing at Euro 2016

In 1990, aged 21, Marc Wilmots was the youngest member of the Belgian World Cup squad in Italy. As the team’s mascot, he could only watch as Belgium lost to England in the first knockout round, with David Platt spooning a volley into the Belgian net from close range to hurry them home.

Three consecutive World Cups – 1994, 1998 and 2002 – followed for Wilmots, as did furloughs playing club football outside of Belgium, notably at Bordeaux in France and Schalke 04 in Germany.

It was at Schalke that he earned the nickname “Das Kampfschwein”, roughly translated as “The Warpig”. The moniker has a certain crude charm. For one, Wilmots was a bustling head-down attacking midfielder, with two good feet and a strong header; for another, he is thick-set, wide-faced, bull-necked.

Look at him pace the touchline in his tailored white shirt and you can see exactly what those wicked Schalke fans were thinking.

A couple of weeks ago, in Euro 2016’s opening round, Wilmots’s Belgium were pressed, squeezed and harried by Italy, losing 2-0. The result confirmed what many old European hands had long suspected: Belgium were a side of gifted lightweights.

As a footballing nation Italy has perfected the art of defensive rigour allied to its goal-scorers’ ability to hit the back of the net when it matters.

Italy can win when it counts, said those same old hands, it’s wired into their footballing DNA; contrast it with the Belgians, 11 talented individuals in search of a team, who hit the business end of things and rather fade like the Proteas in the Caribbean – a team of serial underachievers.

Two weeks is a long time in tournament football, however, and high-scoring victories over the Republic of Ireland and Hungary have followed for Belgium after the Italy defeat.

Sunday night’s calm drubbing of Hungary has encouraged the football world to look again at Wilmots and his team. They play Wales in the quarter-finals and you rather feel that after all those World Cup disappointments for “Das Kampfschwein”, the Belgians might just be tiring of the dismissive barbs.

They play Wales in Lille on Friday night, one of the venues closest to the Belgian border, and will feel almost at home. This could just be their Euro.

On the other hand, those self-same old pundits have been pointing out the parallels between this Belgian side and the Spain side of approximately 10 years ago. Spain, we forget, had to endure hardship in becoming champions of Europe in 2008 and world champions two years later – and perhaps Belgium haven’t experienced the requisite pain.

In 2004, you might remember, the European Championships were hosted by Portugal. Spain had the misfortune of being drawn with the two finalists – Portugal and Greece – in the first round, beating Russia, drawing with Greece and losing 1-0 to Portugal.

This meant they finished third, on the same number of points as eventual winners, Greece, but by virtue of Greece scoring more goals, they went through. Spain crossed the border, going home.

In the 2006 World Cup, it was a similar story. Spain scored eight goals in the opening group phase but were beaten 3-1 by France in the first knockout round. So here we were, in the land of infinite promise and limited delivery: for Belgium circa 2016, see Spain circa 2006. They might become champions of the continent but they won’t be doing it now.

Then again, you do see Belgian eyes blazing. You only had to look at Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard on Sunday night to know that this Belgian side believe that their time is now. They are in no mood to wait.

Neither is the country (or the “Warpig”, for that matter). They’ve endured suffering, having lost to Argentina in the quarter-finals in Brazil two years ago. Other than sensing they’re up for it, there’s the selfish sense of wanting something fresh as a spectator. For who can stomach the parade of usual suspects, Germany, Spain and France, yet again?

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Premier League’s opening madness may well shatter our preconceptions

Thanks to several unique circumstances, this season will likely confound everyone, from pundits to economists

Expect no charity from football’s elite

We should let go of the hope that our favourite clubs are going to act altruistically in English football’s looming financial crisis

Q&A Sessions: ‘Each generation must open doors for the next’ — Desiree Ellis

Desiree Ellis has a deep understanding of the development of women’s football in South Africa. The Banyana Banyana head coach talks to Luke Feltham about how the women’s game has changed over her 40-year career

A modicum of release: Lumumba’s remains return home at last

Sixty years after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the DRC’s first prime minister, his remains will be returned from Belgium

Cartoon: A Messi affair in the Barcelona house

An untidy board room has prompted a transfer request from the little man

Top European clubs circle as Messi calls time at Barcelona

The Argentine legend has fallen out with the Catalan club's hierarchy, which has alerted a number of sides in world football

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Air pollution link in 15% of global Covid-19 deaths

Researchers have found that, because ambient fine particulate air pollution aggravates comorbidities, it could play a factor in coronavirus fatalities

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday