Twice in the space of 16 years, Marc Wilmots stared blankly ahead at his teammate, friend and ally, Gert Verheyen. And on each of those unblinking occasions, the fate of the Belgium national team changed for better or for worse. The first time it happened, back in 1998, it was for the latter.
During a France ‘98 group game against Mexico at Bordeaux, Wilmots, then 29, was bang in the middle of his finest footballing hour. Within the space of four minutes at the end of the first half, the midfielder had pocketed two goals (one with his stomach and the other after having run through the entire Mexican backline) to send Belgium well ahead. But tragedy struck early in the second.
In the 50th minute of the game and deep in Belgium’s box, striker Verheyen brought down his Mexican counterpart Garcia Aspe from behind with a needless, studs-up challenge. Guilty as charged, Verheyen was sent off and Aspe pulled one back with the resulting penalty. Soon, thanks to the fact that Belgium were down to 10 men, Mexico equalised, ensuring that a winless Belgium crashed out of the Cup.
Although the two remained acquaintances off the field, Belgian journalists in the know claim that Wilmots never did forgive Verheyen. Not until as recently as four months ago, when Verheyen decided to shock Wilmots once again.
In April this year, Wilmots, now 45 and promoted to chief coach of the Rode Duivels (Red Devils — called so for 79 years longer than Manchester United, who adopted it in 1983), was in search for a lead striker after Christian Benteke limped out with a torn achilles tendon. Yes, he had Romelu Lukaku at his disposal, but Wilmots was said to be looking for someone fresh; someone who hadn’t been worn down by the gruelling Premier League season.
And just when he had given up hope, Wilmots’s phone rang in the dead of a cold Brussels night. It was old friend Verheyen, now in-charge of the Belgium Under-19 side. “Marc, I have someone you need to see immediately,” Verheyen is said to have uttered. “He is young, athletic and a natural born striker. And most importantly, he is ready.”
The next day, Wilmots and Verheyen flew back to France, the country where things had gone awry between them. And in the tiny principality of Lille, they laid eyes on 19-year old Divock Origi. Verheyen did so with a smile; Wilmots with his mouth open. He had found his striker. But far more importantly, a gifted and near-complete Belgian squad for the World Cup had found its missing link.
The little known Ligue 1 footballer’s addition barely continued…