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Belgium's new coach faces Euro 2004 test

© Reuters 2002

BRUSSELS, Aug 12 (Reuters) - Aime Antheunis may have bagged the top job in Belgian football but the newly-appointed national coach says nothing beats playing the beautiful game. "Playing is always more interesting. It's better to do things than say you will do them," Antheunis, 58, told Reuters in an interview.

The successful former Anderlecht coach was chosen in late June to lead the Belgian Red Devils through qualifying to the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. With more than 20 years of coaching under his belt, Antheunis was the long-standing favourite to replace veteran coach Robert Waseige, who quit at the end of the World Cup finals for Standard Liege.

The Belgians reached the second round in South Korea and Japan where they bowed out 2-0 to Brazil. Drawn in a relatively easy group for Euro 2004 with Croatia, Bulgaria, Estonia and Andorra, Belgium should sail through the qualifiers that kick off in September. "Croatia and Bulgaria are also building a new, young team. That doesn't mean they will be very good. We will see," Antheunis said.

He will certainly hope his players perform better than they did in the last European championships in 2000 when Belgium gained the unhappy distinction of being the only host nation ever to be eliminated at the first stage.

But with the departure of attacking players like Johan Walem, Yves Vanderhaeghe and Branko Strupar, few would envy Antheunis his task of rebuilding the depleted national side. "You must try to rebuild the team around the players available and see which players are in good shape," he said.

However, the gaping hole left by inspirational captain Marc Wilmots will be hardest to fill. Nicknamed 'Mr 1,000 Volts', the midfielder scored three goals at the World Cup before the defeat to the Brazilians.

"It will not be easy to replace Wilmots. He was not only a good player but also a good example of action rather than words," said Antheunis. The new coach has yet to decide who will skipper Belgium in their friendly against Poland on August 20, but the squad is due to be announced on Friday.

Antheunis said he would experiment with the team and play all 18 members of the squad against Poland - the first real test of his leadership. A familiar figure in Belgian soccer, Dutch-speaking Antheunis has been coach of the year three times. He has proved he can turn teams around, but says: "Motivation is something that must come from the players themselves."

He led unfancied Genk to the Belgian first division title in 1999 and capped his time at Anderlecht with two league championships. His experience in Brussels has stood him in good stead against the often biased Belgian press, who have often criticised coaches for favouring either Dutch-speaking or French-speaking players. Brussels is situated in the heart of Dutch-speaking Flanders but the majority of its inhabitants speak French.

Antheunis insists he will only choose the best players. "In Anderlecht you have both sides of the country. The better player must play whether he's from Liege or Bruges," he said. Having one of soccer's most stressful jobs - his predecessor Waseige had quadruple heart bypass surgery last year - Antheunis tries to unwind when he can. "No yoga, just a drink once in a while," the cycling enthusiast said.

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