Sometimes nicknamed "Raymond-la-science" ("Raymond-the-Science", previously the nickname of Belgian anarchist and Bonnot gang member Raymond Callemin), "le sorcier" ("the Wizard") or "le magicien" ("the Magician"), Goethals was known for his blunt way of speaking, his habit of mispronouncing players' names and his distinctive Brussels accent. A chain smoker, he was likened to TV police detective Lieutenant Columbo. He was the father of the referee Guy Goethals, who officiated at the 1996 European Championships.
Goethals began his career as a goalkeeper in the 1930s with Daring Brussels, making his way through the youth ranks of the club before joining Racing Club Brussel in 1947. He remained at Racing Club Brussel until 1948. After a period spent playing for Renaisiènne, he moved into coaching with Hannutois and Waremme, and led Sint-Truiden to second place in the Belgian First Division in 1966.
Goethals took charge of the Belgian national side in 1968. Belgium would succeed in qualifying for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, although they were eliminated in the first round of the tournament. Belgium hosted the 1972 European Championship, having knocked out holders Italy in the qualifying stages, and defeated Hungary in the match for third place after losing in the semi-final to eventual tournament winners Germany. That marked Goethals' greatest success as national team coach. He also took great pride in the fact that Belgium had held the emergent Dutch national team scoreless in both their meetings in 1974 World Cup qualifying. Belgium completed their qualifying campaign without having conceded a single goal, but lost out to the Netherlands on account of their inferior goal difference.
Controversy and Goethals' return to Anderlecht
Standard Liège's 1982 championship win was to become the subject of great controversy in 1984. Seemingly preoccupied with winning his first Belgian title, Goethals had suggested and initiated the bribing of the Waterschei players prior to the teams' meeting in the final match of the season, in order to secure championship honours for Standard Liège and ensure that none of his players would miss their European final against Barcelona through injury. Goethals was forced to resign in the wake of the scandal, and he moved to Portugal to take charge of Vitória Guimarães. He then returned to Belgium to coach Racing Jet de Bruxelles before a second spell in charge of Anderlecht, where he won Belgian Cup trophy in 1989. Bordeaux again recruited Goethals, and they finished runners-up in the French championship in 1989–90 behind Marseille. Approaching 70 years of age, Goethals' greatest triumph as a coach was yet to come.
In 1990, Goethals was named coach of Marseille and was entrusted with the task of leading the club to European Cup success. In his first season, the club narrowly missed out on European glory, losing on penalties in the European Cup Final to Red Star Belgrade. There was recognition for Goethals' coaching abilities, as he was voted 1991 European Coach of the Year. In 1993, Marseille again reached the European Cupfinal, where they defeated favourites A.C. Milan with a headed goal by Basile Boli. Having achieved his primary objective at Marseille, Goethals left the club.
Marseille were later stripped of their 1993 French championship when it emerged that three Valenciennes players had been offered money to underperform in a crucial match against Marseille. The club were not allowed to defend their European title as a result, and were punished with relegation to the French second division.
Goethals' coaching career ended at Anderlecht in season 1995–96, but he remained in demand as a television analyst for his insights into football. He died of bowel cancer aged 83. In 2005, the year following his death, he was voted 38th in De Grootste Belg, a Flemish television programme based on the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons. The number 2 stand at F.C. Brussels' home ground, Edmond Machtens Stadium, was renamed in honour of Goethals in late 2005.