Martinez: My dad still challenges me on coaching

Roberto Martinez speaks to
Belgium have been the world’s top-ranked team for three straight years
Martinez discusses mentality, World Cup highlights and his future in the job

“Don’t tell me what’s wrong. Tell me how you’d fix it.”

Roberto Martinez can see now that his life and career have been shaped by these words and the man who recited them. That challenge, to solve a problem identified on the pitch, came from his father, himself a player, coach and football obsessive. And it was posed, repeatedly, to Roberto from the age of nine.

Martinez remembers, as a boy, replying with fresh tactical systems, tweaks in positioning and personnel – “anything to impress him really”. And even now, as the 47-year-old coach and technical director of the world’s top-ranked team, he is still subjected to the same conversations-cum-interrogations from this most demanding of mentors.

The Belgium boss wouldn’t have it any other way though, and relishes the opportunity to talk football with the man who made him see the game “not just as a sport, but as a way of living”. It helps too, of course, that he can now bring to these animated father-son chats a wealth of evidence that underline his credentials as an elite coach and, yes, accomplished problem-solver.

The most recent exhibits include leading Belgium to their best-ever finish at a FIFA World Cup™ and, for the past three years, keeping them perched immovably at the summit of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. All that is left to do with the Red Devils is win a major trophy and, in this interview, the man leading their ‘golden generation’ tells how much he is savouring that challenge. Roberto, you’ve been in the Belgium job for almost five years now. Does it still feel fresh and challenging?

Roberto Martinez: It does. It’s fresh in part because of the nature of international football. The job of an international coach is completely different to coaching a club and, the longer I do it, the more I’ve discovered that it’s a constant avenue of opportunities in terms of ‘recruiting’ the next group of players. You can just sit back, of course, wait, look at who’s doing well at club level and call them into the national team. But I felt very early on, with Belgium a nation of just 11 million people, that we couldn’t just take that approach. And I’ve really enjoyed treating the national team almost like a club and creating a kind of recruitment system, setting certain projects in the U-19s and U-21s and giving those players a clear path into the senior set-up. Then of course there is the more obvious pleasure of working with the best generation Belgian football has ever had, and when the matches come around there is definitely huge enjoyment in that.

I heard you recently talking about your father taking you to games at a young age, asking you to think analytically. Do you think he’s more proud of the fact you’ve become a coach than he was when you became a professional player?

Quite possibly. My dad played until 43 – he was a real force of nature – and, as players, we were always competing against each other. As a coach, he advises me more… and challenges me a lot! (laughs) He’s always saying, ‘Why are you doing that when you could do it this way?’ But I will always be grateful because he gave me that special way of looking at the game. We can all see a game and think, for example, ‘They’re struggling to break the opposition down.’ But he would say: ‘Don’t tell me that. Tell me what they can do to solve the problem.’ And that is the key to coaching because, in football, there is no right or wrong: we’re all looking to get the ball in the back of the net, and how you do that comes down to your experiences and how you understand the game. From a young age, my dad made me think about that. He still does! We keep going, and I treasure our conversations. But it’s a good thing they don’t get recorded. (laughs)

So he’ll argue with you and criticise you?

Oh, absolutely! He does it with a lot of love. But he cannot understand how the game has moved on in certain respects. Don’t ask him about zonal marking at set plays, that’s for sure! (laughs)

As a player, you never made it to the national team or played in a World Cup. Was that part of the reason for taking the Belgium job and, if so, how did the experience match up to your expectations?

It’s a very good question, and I do think it was a factor. When you look back to when you’re a kid, discovering football, playing on the streets, the first thing you do is relive moments from World Cups. That’s definitely my memory – of playing in the streets in 1978, pretending to be Mario Kempes. Playing in a World Cup was the big dream. It’s always been there for me, and even when I was a manager in the Premier League, I wanted to be part of the World Cup – to follow it in situ. That was why I started working with an American channel and spent 60 days at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, seeing how the different national teams prepared and everything that went on around the tournament. It was fascinating to me.

And yes, I think it’s definitely a big reason why I was so keen to take the challenge with Belgium. It’s been the best thing I could have done too, in terms of how it’s stretched me and tested me as a coach. And the World Cup in Russia definitely lived up to my expectations. In fact, it exceeded them. It was obviously one of the best World Cups in terms of organisation, and we managed to play seven games there, which had always been our target. I also think, in any World Cup, it makes it extra special when you face Brazil, and in our case we were fortunate enough to get a great win against them. That was an amazing experience.

You were involved in two of Russia 2018’s most memorable matches: that Brazil game you mention, and the 3-2 comeback against Japan. Which of those two wins were you most proud of?

Both. It’s impossible for me to separate the two. When we started that World Cup, we were very aware that we had the talent to compete. But there is often this false conception of the champion, and a feeling that when you look at a World Cup-winning team – Spain in South Africa, for example – that they blew teams away and just steamrolled their way to the trophy. If you look closer that’s never the case, and what you see is that talent alone doesn’t win you trophies – it’s how you face adversity, as those successful teams do. That was a question for us: ‘How will we react when we face adversity?’ And in that Japan game, 2-0 down with just over 20 minutes to go, we found the answer to that question. It wasn’t easy. That was the first time ever in the World Cup that two substitutes had come on to score, and the first time since 1966 that a team had come from two goals down to win a match in 90 minutes. That’s how significant it was, and it makes you proud.

The Brazil game was satisfying in a different way because, for 60 minutes, it was the most beautiful tactical performance that we produced. Also, when you play Brazil, you’re not just playing a phenomenal group of players – you’re playing the history. When you travel to the stadium it’s yellow everywhere, and everything reminds you: this is a team that has won five World Cups.

Clearly that kind of history is something that Belgium, like many football nations, simply don’t have. Was it a challenge to get your team, however talented they might be as individual players, to start thinking of themselves as the equals of Brazil, Germany and other teams with a greater trophy-winning pedigree?

Of course, and I think there was also the element of dealing with the expectations of being told that they are this ‘golden generation’ and should all of a sudden be reaching those heights. The players knew they were carrying the hopes and expectations of millions, and that’s not easy. The golden generation tag could have been very difficult for these players to carry, as we’ve seen in other countries. But they provided a great example of how to deal with that pressure while continuing to express themselves and enjoy their football.

You mention the golden generation tag. How have you dealt with that and, with so many of that generation now seemingly in their prime years, is there a feeling that there’s a window of opportunity in the next EURO and World Cup that no-one wants to see close without a trophy?

I felt before the World Cup that it was a very unfair tag because, for me, you become a golden generation through your achievements – not because of people’s perception of your status. I was worried that it would bring extra, unnecessary pressure. Now I don’t worry about that because, after what happened in Russia – with the way this team played, and coming home with the bronze medal – they are Belgium’s golden generation. I don’t feel that the tag carries any pressure for these players anymore. It doesn’t mean we’ll win the EURO or the next World Cup; in tournament football there are so many small details that affect who wins and who doesn’t. But it means we’ll be as good as we can be, unburdened by expectations, and ready to go there to compete together – as players, staff and fans.

The consistency and relentlessness of your team is reflected in the fact that you’ve finished top of the FIFA Ranking for the past three years. It’s not a trophy, of course, but is that a source of real pride all the same?

Absolutely. You’re right that it’s not a trophy, and not something we go around shouting or boasting about. But it’s the only way of measuring consistency, commitment and strength in depth against the world’s other football nations. It’s not easy to do what we’ve done, and what’s most pleasing is the control in our own standards that we’ve shown throughout those three years. It’s also another first for Belgian football – we’ve never had a period like this at number one in the world – and it shows not only how consistent these players have been, but what great ambassadors they are for their country.

You put a lot of store in building a team ‘culture’, but other coaches found that challenging with Belgium due to the different communities, languages and so on that exist within the country. Has being a foreign coach helped you in that respect?

Absolutely, and I would say that challenge was a big attraction in taking on the job in the first place. I had managed Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Kevin Mirallas at Everton and it intrigued me, seeing that these very distinct players and personalities – all so different – coming from the same national team. And you realise: that’s Belgium. This is a country that’s so full of diversity, of different qualities and attributes, and if you can bring everyone’s focus to achieving the same goal, that diversity and variety becomes an enormous strength. The dressing room we have reminds me a lot of one you would find in the Premier League, with the different cultures and mindsets – plus the three official languages – and that’s been fascinating. If you don’t pay attention to the sensitivities of that, it’s very easy for things to be dismantled and that shared goal to be lost. But it’s true that being a foreigner has definitely helped me a lot – even if it might not seemed that way initially – because the moment I started making big decisions, it was clear that the only reason I had for doing what I did was to create a better team. I don’t have an attachment to any of the individual communities, and being seen as neutral has been a key element for me in this job.

That being said, it’s the attitude of each individual player, in coming together to pursue one goal, that has made this team so successful and exciting to watch. Nothing has come easy for these players. Almost all of them had to leave Belgium at a very young age and, wherever they went, they had to fight, develop and adapt. I think that’s why none of them take playing for the national team for granted. For them, it’s almost like a celebration of all that effort, of all that hard work and overcoming the difficulties and the tears of having to leave their families. It’s wonderful to see. So often you hear of spoiled footballers where everything has come too early and too easy, and with players like that it’s so difficult to get them to appreciate the moment, be consistent and have strong values. With Belgium’s players, because of the challenges they have faced, in leaving home, adapting to new countries and new languages, they know to appreciate each moment and the significance of representing their national team.

Finally, you have extended your contract through the 2022 World Cup. Will that be a point at which, regardless of how things go in Qatar, you’ll look to try something new? Or is there the potential for prolonging your stay further?

The answer to that probably lies in what has already happened. Initially, I came to Belgium for two years: to prepare the team for the World Cup, compete in Russia and then go back to club football. That was the idea. But over four years later, I’m still here, still enjoying my job and very excited for the next international camp. That’s why I can’t give an answer to that question now, or even an inclination, because I genuinely don’t know. I just want to make the most of today and keep doing that every day for however long I am here.



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