Irish supporters needn't get too excited about the reports of a dramatic punch-up on a plane between Belgium's goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and their manager Marc Wilmots. It seems the incident had been sexed-up by mischievous elements in the media. What happened between Courtois and Wilmots was nothing more than an exchange of views between two mature professionals. That's normal. That's football.
Barring a late injury, there's no chance that Ireland will be facing Simon Mignolet rather than Courtois. At the Nouveau Stade in Bordeaux yesterday, Wilmots confirmed that he would make "between two and 10 changes" – with Courtois the only player from the team that lost to Italy still assured of his starting place this afternoon.
All the same, relations between Belgium’s brilliant goalkeeper and their beleaguered coach seemed rather frosty when they appeared together at today’s pre-match press conference. It would be exaggerating to say that when they entered the room the temperature dropped by several degrees, but not by much.
Awkwardly, Courtois had gone on TV after Monday’s defeat to Italy and announced: “We were outclassed on all fronts. Tactically, technically and organisationally we came up short.”
It’s hard to imagine how Courtois could have offered a less diplomatic assessment of the game, or one less flattering to his manager.
Wilmots had dismissed the quotes as the sort of silly thing players sometimes come out with immediately after a match, when adrenaline intoxication can fill the brain with delusional ideas. But Belgian journalists in Bordeaux said that Courtois was still saying similar things an hour after the game, after he’d had plenty of time to cool down.
Courtois may not have deliberately set out to undermine Wilmots, but you could understand if Wilmots in his darker moments suspected that he had.
The comments were damaging because they jabbed at Wilmots’s rawest professional nerve – the accusation that his tactical shortcomings are holding back Belgium’s golden generation from achieving its potential.
The view of Wilmots as tactically inept is particularly prevalent in the Dutch-speaking (Flemish) media. Wilmots is a Walloon, and the Francophone media has tended to give him an easier ride, pointing to his qualities as a motivator and builder of team spirit.
But team spirit is not something a manager can simply will into existence. It also depends on the internal dynamics of the group. And very few squads in international football are more complex than Belgium’s.
The peculiar complication in this
team is that there are so many good players, but no obvious leader. They did have a natural leader in Vincent Kompany, but he’s at home in England with a ruptured thigh muscle.
Say what you like about status hierarchies, their presence in all kinds of teams tells you that people usually feel more comfortable when they have one to fit into. Not everyone will be happy with their place in the hierarchy as it stands at any given moment, but at least everyone understands the rules.
In the absence of a clear hierarchy, you have more potential for rivalry, power-plays, division and bad feeling. And Belgium’s struggle to find an on-field identity that makes the most of their talent seems to reflect some of that internal tension.
Who really runs the team if Kompany's not around to be the boss? The stand-in captain is Eden Hazard, but he's a star, not a leader. He's one of the boys who only has the armband because he's been the best player for a few years.
The other big hero is Kevin de Bruyne, who is younger than Hazard, perhaps not quite as skilful, but more obviously driven and often more productive on the field. Hazard and de Bruyne have only combined for two goals in the four years Wilmots has been manager, and their failure to form an effective partnership is often used as a stick with which to beat the coach.
Then there are talented players like Yannick Carrasco and Moussa Dembélé, who find themselves sitting on the bench while Wilmots selects less gifted players like Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel.
When Wilmots is asked about this, he uses that phrase beloved of coaches, “balance in the team”. You notice that the players coaches say “add balance” are usually the kind of guys who are good at following orders.
The talk at the Belgium press conference was that De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Fellaini could be the fall-guys for the Italy defeat, with Dries Mertens, Christian Benteke and Carrasco taking their places and Hazard moving into a more central role.
Leaving de Bruyne out would be an unpopular move, not least with De Bruyne, who left Chelsea because he hated being on the bench. With such awkward decisions to make, it's no surprise that Wilmots finds himself fending off media criticism. And he enjoys criticism even less than most people do.
Something of Wilmots’s natural pugnacity is reflected in the nickname he was given at Schalke: “Kampfschwein” – which literally translates as “fighting pig”. It’s actually a generic nickname that Germans bestow upon players who might not be the greatest technically but have an indomitable attitude. The Kampfschwein in the Irish squad would be
But it’s not Wilmots’s only nickname. At today’s press conference, he was asked what he thought of reports that some of his players call him “Moi, Je” (“Me, I”) because of his habit of talking incessantly about himself and a playing career that encompassed four World Cups.
Wilmots declined to answer that part of the question, but the funny thing was that by the time it was asked, anyone playing “Moi, Je” bingo would already have been able to tick “mentions his four World Cups” and “grumbles about negative press coverage received in one of his previous World Cups” off their list.
In Bordeaux yesterday, Moi, Je sat with his arms folded and regarded the Belgian press coldly. The journalists had heard that a major team summit had been held. The problems of the team had been openly discussed, and the manager had asked the players to suggest solutions.
Wilmots denied it. “Yesterday we trained, we changed the system. There were no discussions. We conceded a goal and we discussed that. That was normal.” He rejected the notion that he had invited the players to make suggestions. “They mustn’t do so. I am the man in charge. I make the decisions. Okay? Thank you.”
He didn’t seem a happy man. It was hard to be convinced he was running a happy camp.
Occasionally you see a team that achieves something good despite not getting on with its manager. The outstanding example would be the French team that unexpectedly reached the World Cup final in 2006.
The difference between that French team and this Belgian one is that
could coalesce around the figure of
once they had rejected the authority of their manager
. After Zidane retired, Domenech led them to group stage exits in 2008 and 2010.
Who will step forward to take responsibility for talented, directionless Belgium? Courtois? Vertonghen? Hazard?
If Ireland are lucky, we’ll still be wondering at four o’clock tomorrow.