Belgium Coach Martínez: At the World Cup we Need to Show we are Prepared to Suffer

Belgium Coach Martínez: At the World Cup we Need to Show we are Prepared to Suffer

Sunday, 17 June, 2018 - 08:45
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez and his assistant Thierry Henry. (AFP)
London - Donald McRae
“Everyone remembers their first World Cup as their introduction to football,” Roberto Martínez says on an intriguing afternoon at Belgium’s training center in Tubize. We’re just a short drive from Brussels but a long way from Sochi where Belgium, whom Martínez has managed since August 2016, play their first game as one of the tournament favorites against Panama on Monday.

“I remember my first World Cup in 1982, when I was 10, starting a Panini collection with my dad and getting all the stickers and trying to understand as much as I could about the other nations,” Martínez tell the Guardian. “So to be involved in the tournament, as an international manager, means a great deal. But, just like then, football is all about the players. I have a fantastic group and I believe totally in them.”

Martínez is under intense pressure. He leads one of the most talented squads in Russia while his position is debated in Belgium, where the Spaniard has never quite been accepted. Yet his enthusiasm is unstinting, on a day where he gives up 80 minutes to engage so fully with this interview it is hard to think of another World Cup manager who would be as generous.

Some have suggested that, considering the excellence of his squad, anything less than topping a group which includes England and Tunisia and reaching at least the semi-finals should be considered a failure. Martínez is too cute to make any predictions but he exudes a breezy confidence. “Failure is not trying to win,” he says airily before outlining his challenges in more precise detail. “We’re going to be adventurous and brave. We’re going to try and win every game. But the feelings you develop in the three group games are essential.

“We’ve got the talent but, clearly, a country like Germany already has the belief. When you speak with ex-players from Germany they tell you that when they pulled on the shirt they had no doubt they would win. That psychology is powerful in knock-out tournaments. We need to show that mentality and I believe we will because our attitude and talent is very good.”

Belgium’s record under Martínez looks impressive. They have played 18 matches, losing only once, and they were the first European country to qualify for the World Cup from an easy group. “We have only lost my first game, the friendly against Spain, and since then the players showed incredible focus. Spain was a very interesting game because sacked Julen Lopetegui took over as their manager at a similar time. That was both our first game in charge. It was similar when he took over Porto and we faced each other in a friendly at Everton.

“Spain are in a very good moment. They’ve got a really good mixture of players that already know what it means to win a major tournament and younger players that have played in this style the last 10 years. From that point we learned a lot tactically and adjusted. We are ready to compete against teams like Spain.” It remains to be seen how far Spain can progress in the World Cup given Lopetegui’s shcok dismissal on the eve of the tournament.

One of Belgium’s star players, Kevin De Bruyne, challenged Martínez last November. After Belgium drew with Mexico, De Bruyne said they had been outwitted and, despite the 3-3 scoreline, Martínez had used an excessively defensive 5-3-2 formation. “Mexico were tactically better,” De Bruyne said. “As long as there is no good tactical system we face difficulties. It’s a pity we have not yet found a solution. We are playing a very defensive system, but our team is filled with many attacking players.”

“We don’t normally play 5-3-2,” Martínez explains, “but we want to be flexible. The system we used most was 3-4-3 as it helps the front players we have with Kevin, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku. It was good in qualifying but we tried other systems in friendlies. Mexico were fantastic tactically and gave us a really good exercise.”

Some coaches might bristle when an outstanding player is openly critical but Martínez turns those misgivings into praise. “Kevin showed how much he cares. The reason for talking was totally honest and healthy. There is a culture here of trying to understand things from a tactical point of view, which I like. I’m not asking every player to give their view in public but Kevin said it in a way of wanting us to improve. He is growing into a big leadership role.

“The 3-4-3 system helped Chelsea win the Premier League last year and I used it with Wigan in 2009. But the system is just a starting position. I’m more interested in the way we play and our mentality. At the World Cup we need to show that we are prepared to suffer – and face adversity. This group do not have a previous generation to show them how to win a major tournament. So it’s almost going into the unknown and we need to be very focused.”

Portugal are the only other team from Martínez’s first 18 matches to harbor serious World Cup ambitions and they drew 0-0 in Brussels this month. Belgium were more impressive last week when brushing aside Egypt 3-0. But, rather than lamenting a lack of serious opposition, Martínez highlights the distinct character of a 23-man squad in which only one player, Leander Dendoncker from Anderlecht, is based in Belgium.

“In this dressing room the players understand what it means to play for the Red Devils,” Martínez says, using a nickname he loves for his team. “It’s different to any other country in Europe because normally you don’t get this situation where 95 percent of the squad play abroad. When they come back they care about the national team.”

Martínez points out that, until he moved to Belgium, he had spent exactly 21 years each in Spain and Britain – having lived almost his entire adult life in the UK as a player and then as a manager for Wigan, Swansea, Motherwell, Walsall, Chester and Everton. Has his unusual past helped him in Belgium? “I think so. I first moved out of my comfort zone at 16 to play for Real Zaragoza. To go from there at 21 to Wigan was like going to the moon.

“These different experiences were valuable when later managing a very diverse Premier League dressing room. Diversity is very important in the Belgium dressing room so it feels natural.”

Having lived in England for so long, Martínez knows that “golden generation” is a loaded term. Yet it is often applied to a group of Belgian players including De Bruyne, Hazard, Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé, Lukaku and Mertens. “When people talk of Belgium’s golden generation it doesn’t bother me. It’s a media term but there’s nothing wrong in highlighting this group’s quality. It’s more important you find a winning mentality from inside the group and they deal with adversity – because you’ll face that in a major tournament.”

Martínez will need to overcome any psychological barriers that have affected Belgium in recent tournaments – most recently when Wales knocked them out in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016. The appointment of Thierry Henry as his assistant has helped. Henry was part of a transformative French squad which won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 after decades of disappointment.

Belgium play England in their final group game on June 28. In an understated way, Gareth Southgate has prepared England more effectively than many of his World Cup predecessors. “Absolutely. Gareth is a thinker. He has a clear vision and he has players he knows really well from his time in the under-21s. He’s created a team that looks as if it will enjoy the World Cup. We worked together on ITV during the Euros in Poland and Ukraine and we got on really well and share a similar outlook.”

There will be nerves for both managers when they meet in Kaliningrad but their earlier results against Panama and Tunisia will set the tone. “Panama just kept the United States out of the World Cup so they are national heroes. They’ve got incredible belief and are very competitive. And when you go into a World Cup with a feeling of celebration, you’ve got nothing to lose. Tunisia also have a strong team that has been together for a few years. They like to play but they know how to be solid. It’s a very good mixture and they qualified in style.”

Brazil, Germany, Spain and France are ahead of Belgium as World Cup favorites. Martínez grins. “And Argentina. They have Messi. Those five teams won the World Cup in modern times, in the last 22 years. They can look internally and get guidance from the generation that won it. You need that because, psychologically, to overcome the unknown is difficult. You can have good individuals but to reach that level you need to unlock something special.”

Criticized heavily in Belgium for excluding Radja Nainggolan, Martínez knows how lucky he is to have exceptional players.

“Kevin De Bruyne almost goes against the idea that we have of a playmaker who finds his own tempo and almost delays everything. Kevin’s the opposite. He’s the most dynamic playmaker. He can execute a pass with incredible precision but at a very quick tempo. Eden Hazard is a leader and he would never turn away from getting on the ball. He’s getting to a moment where everything is done with real purpose and quality. Dries Mertens has been brilliant at Napoli in his first season as a No 9. His appreciation of space and his intelligence makes him really efficient.”

Martínez managed Lukaku at Everton and the striker complained that they should play more direct football. “That was one comment in a 30-minute interview and you need to understand Romelu is obsessed with becoming the best he can be. That is a winning mentality. He was never disrespectful. So we have these strong personalities. Look at Vincent Kompany. We hope he is fit because his experience is so important and he knows how to face adversity. He’s had to cope with a lot and he keeps bouncing back. He is special.”

We talk for another 30 minutes as Martínez remembers the first football shirt he bought as a boy – Carlos “Lobo” Diarte’s No. 9 for Zaragoza – and his surreal early years as a Spaniard in Wigan. He also remembers his luck meeting his Scottish wife, Beth, during a brief spell at Motherwell and how, amid an absorption in the football philosophy of Johan Cruyff, he became close to Cruyff’s son. Jordi Cruyff was best man at his wedding on a beautiful day in Wales. Martínez jokes that his young daughter, Luella, might support England, the country of her birth, as we complete a photo session while opera booms out. “That’s Nacer Chadli,” Martínez says of the West Brom midfielder who is in his World Cup squad. “He loves opera.”

Martínez is at ease with these contrasts and, despite all those who doubt him, he could inspire Belgium in Russia. “These players carry the inspiration,” he insists. “We have so much diversity in Belgium but the Red Devils will bring everyone together.”

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