By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS, April 30 (Reuters) - Few warmed to the idea of inexperienced Marc Wilmots taking charge of Belgium in 2012. Two years later, the football association and fans were begging him to stay.
His status as a player is unquestioned, appearing in three World Cups in 1994, 1998 and 2002, making eight appearances and scoring five goals. He also captained the side in 2002, the last time Belgium appeared at a major championship.
A dogged midfielder, dubbed "Kampfschwein" (The Fighting Pig) by fans of Schalke 04 with whom he won the UEFA Cup in 1997, Wilmots earned 70 Belgium caps and scored 29 goals.
After retiring, the 45-year-old dabbled in politics and began coaching, although his first role at lowly Belgian club St Truiden lasted just eight months.
The turnaround began in 2009 when Dutchman Dick Advocaat took him on as an assistant in the Belgian national team, a post he retained under Advocaat's successor Georges Leekens, who abruptly resigned in May 2012.
Many in Belgium hoped for a high-profile appointment, such as Eric Gerets, a member of the side who reached the 1986 World Cup semi-finals and a proven manager in Germany, Turkey and France. He decided to stay as coach of Morocco, only to get sacked a few months later.
Wilmots has not tinkered much with the squad he inherited, but has created a far better sense of unity than his predecessor, including among those players on the bench.
Midfielder Eden Hazard walked out of the stadium to a nearby hamburger stall when substituted by Leekens during a European Championship qualifying match in 2011, an incident dubbed "burgergate".
Under Wilmots's guidance, Hazard has improved even if the coach is still seeking to coax him into reproducing his excellent Chelsea form more regularly for the national side.
Wilmots's teams play with more fluidity and patience, built on a confidence that they will eventually break down opponents.
The coach has tweaked sides to suit particular matches, but what is not known so clearly is his ability to react to adversity.
His sides generally dictate play by taking the lead and only once have they faced a half-time deficit under Wilmots, a 1-0 defeat by England in his second match in charge.
Still, Belgium clearly believe they have the right man now.
Wilmots signed a four-year contract extension in April worth a reported 800,000 euros ($1.1 million) per year to make him Belgium's highest paid coach and to keep him in charge until the 2018 World Cup in Russia. ($1 = 0.7234 Euros) (Editing by Ed Osmond and Mike Collett)