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.
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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 tickled the ‘expense meter’ of this wealthy (monetarily and talent-wise) squad, weighing in as the seventh richest team of the World Cup with a combined worth of £286.5 million – greater than England (£272.1m), Portugal (£262.1m) and the Netherlands (£184.1m). But on the field, in his very first appearance for the national team, he was worth his weight in platinum.
In their opening game against Algeria, Origi was brought on for the underwhelming Lukaku in the 66th minute. Instantly, Belgium — trailing 1-0 at this point — seemed energised with his pace, mobility and intelligence. And instantly, Wilmots brought on two more substitutes in Dries Mertens and Marouane Fellaini to supplement Origi’s freshness. Mertens and Fellaini scored to give Belgium the win. But that man who triggered it all, Origi, wasn’t forgotten.
Growing in confidence
When Lukaku struggled against Russia at the Maracana, Origi was brought on again. In his second appearance, Origi looked far more confident, taming obstacles and teeing his flanks free into pockets of space. When they still didn’t score, he did – with a floating screamer to give Belgium the win in the 89th minute. A bright star had joined its rightful constellation.
“And to think that without an injury to Benteke, Divock wouldn’t be here,” beamed Wilmots at the end of the Russia game. “Nobody knew him before today. But I put him on and now everyone knows, everyone can see. Very good to rely on players like him, integrated to his team and quick when the defence gets tired.”
Until not too long ago, he was an unknown Kenyan immigrant. Now, he had become a somebody, with Liverpool hoping to unveil him next season. But the biggest compliment came from neither Anfield nor Wilmots; that was paid by a very sour Lukaku, who said: “It was easier for Divock. He had a good game but it was less of a test for him. When I left the field the defense was tired.”
So Wilmots put Lukaku out of his cribbing misery in the next match, the all-important Round of 16 clash with the Americans. Here, Origi made his maiden starting sheet appearance for Belgium at Lukaku’s expense, burning USA’s defence down with plenty of startling runs. But Wilmots knew what he was doing, as he unleashed a fresh and angry Lukaku at extra-time. Ten minutes later, the on-loan Chelsea striker had assisted the first and scored the second.
And on both occasions, he celebrated by glowering at the bench, where a tired Origi was cooling his heels.
This rivalry is a most healthy one in nature, both for the strikers and of course for the Rode Duivels. And if the word on the street is to be believed, then both Lukaku and Origi could make the starting eleven against Argentina in the quarterfinals on Saturday. Were they to end up outdoing a pathetic Argentine defence in their bid to outdo each other, Wilmots’ long and winding masterplan will finally be complete.