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?