It took Roberto Martinez fewer than ten years to become one of the most respected managers in the English Premier League, after his commendable work with Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton. Since the beginning of August, the 43-year-old Spaniard has been revelling in his new role as coach of the Belgium national team, the reins of which he picked up following the departure of Marc Wilmots, the day after Les Diables Rouges were surprisingly knocked out of the quarter-finals of UEFA EURO 2016.
“Talent is not enough,” Martinez explained to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. That phrase, which his predecessor had previously used when talking to FIFA.com in December 2014, sums up the eternal Belgian “problem”: finding the right balance, as well as that little extra mentally, that will enable the diminutive nation to win the major tournament their fine play deserves.
If anyone can manage to achieve that goal, it is Martinez. In just a couple of months, the tireless tactician has got Belgium back on track, helping them to get off to the best start of any team competing in the European qualifying campaign for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, securing three victories, and scoring 13 goals while conceding none.
He provided an initial assessment of his team, its youth set-up and his assistant coach to FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: Roberto, were you surprised when the Belgian Football Association contacted you?
*Roberto Martinez:* It wasn’t a question of being surprised or not. It was more about trying to understand the project that the FA’s new committee wanted to work on. Once all that became clear in my head and I understood their vision, my enthusiasm rose. I was excited about working with this current generation of players.
*What did you know about the team prior to that?
*There were Premier League players that I knew well, especially Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas, who I worked with at Everton. I also knew the Italy-based players very well. However, I didn’t know the players who play their club football in Belgium – I’m still getting to grips with that, and I’ve been watching as many matches as possible. I’m really blown away by the quality of young Belgian players, and I’m going to offer them opportunities to establish themselves in the senior team. I’m also keen to get to know my players better, not only from a footballing point of view, but also what kind of person they are and how they got to where they are today.
*How did you find the team spirit when you took over?
*The players have known each other for a long time. They grew up together and are happy to get together and spend time with each other. That’s a huge advantage for me and makes my job a lot easier, on top of all the individual skills that facilitate my preparatory work and training sessions. This generation of Belgians are also extremely proud to represent their country. The demands and standards at big European clubs are so high that sometimes national teams end up taking a back seat, but these players are always hugely enthusiastic when they attend our camps. All of these aspects make my work very enjoyable.
*You have world-class players at every position, something very few clubs can say they possess.
*The talent is there, but as everybody knows, talent is not enough. You have to find the right balance; otherwise you can easily find yourself getting into difficulties. You have to also have the right mentality to achieve the kind of goals that have never been achieved before by Belgian football. Lots of countries have had exceptional teams in the past that never won a major tournament. That’s going to be an important thing to work on.
*How did you judge Belgium’s performances at EURO 2016, where they were eliminated by Wales in the quarter-finals?
*I’m not the kind of person to look back to the past. I prefer to deal with the present to see where we can go next. During my first match as national coach against Spain (a friendly match that Belgium lost 2-0 in September), I saw lots of emotion and sadness from the players as well as from the fans. It was very clear to me that the disappointing performance at EURO 2016 had had an affect and that we would have to overcome that. I want a team that is focused on our goals and I don’t want the past to interfere with what we need to do. When I look at our first three qualifying matches, I feel proud because we were able to approach them with cool heads, concentration and a great state of mind. The past must always be regarded as something positive, an experience that enables each player to improve. The way in which the players celebrated our victory over Bosnia with the fans showed that everyone has been able to put the bad memories of the European Championships behind them.
*You were accustomed to having access to your players every day at club level. Do you miss that aspect of the job?
*Not once you understand the nature of the job. Of course there are certain things that I miss about working for a club, but I prefer to be positive and focus on the plus points. What I like is the search for accuracy, clarity and concentration during the short periods where I have the players. It’s very, very different from coaching at a club, that’s for sure. But in football, you always have to be able to adapt and ignore what you don’t have.
*Three wins, 13 goals scored and none conceded: no other team in Europe has a better record than Belgium up to now.
*We prepared for it and we’ve given our all. We’re satisfied with the way that the team has handled itself and been able to adapt to different circumstances, but there have only been three matches so far. At the moment we’re focused on what comes next.
*In your opinion, what kind of potential does Belgium have on the international stage?
*Things will happen in several stages. We first have to do some internal work to really gauge the available resources, build the best possible squad with competition for places throughout, and work on tactics. And then, once we’ve put together the best team that we can, we can start to gauge ourselves against others. The friendly match that we lost to Spain was a good test for us. Straight away, it showed us all the work we still had to do. Beyond that, taking part in a major tournament is something else altogether. There’s a lot of pressure and expectations from the entire country, and that’s why it’s often the same teams that win, due to their psychological approach. We’ll have to work on that, but at the moment we’re only at the first stage.
*During the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a fine Belgian side finished in third place. Can you reveal what the Belgians' secret is? How do they constantly produce new footballing talent?
*To start with, there are a huge number of children who play football in this country. And then the technical training they get is excellent, with the same philosophy of controlling possession of the ball and managing matches being applied at all levels. Thirdly, they want to keep a certain team cohesion with each new generation, and so players make progress together.
*Thierry Henry is known for being a walking football encyclopaedia, and a hard-working, meticulous person. Is he the ideal assistant coach?
*Absolutely. He’s a real fan, is very knowledgeable about the game and has an eye for detail. Football is his life. But what has impressed me the most is his ability to pass on his experience to the players. That’s very important. Not all great players have that ability, but for Thierry, it comes naturally. My staff and I try to meet all of our players’ needs, and he brings a high level of knowledge to the table, because he knows what it means to win a World Cup or a European Championship. He also knows what it means to accomplish something that previous generations weren’t able to do. Thierry is a psychological weapon that we use as much as possible.
*How did this partnership come about?
*I didn’t really know him but I felt a connection with him when I was in charge of Wigan and Everton, and he was doing commentary work on English TV. I could see from his analyses that we shared the same way of looking at the game. Finally, we met through acquaintances we had in common, and we had a good chat. I was looking for someone who could share their experience with my players. And he knows all the players in the Premier League pretty well. Thierry struck me as the ideal person for the job, and everything fell naturally into place.