Roberto Martinez Q&A: Belgium boss talks golden generation and World Cup
BRUSSELS -- It's historically very difficult to break into the elite group of World Cup winners. France did it for the first time in 1998, and then Spain were the last to do so in 2010.
Looking ahead to next summer's World Cup in Russia, heading the field of possible first-time World Cup winners is Belgium, a country with a population of just 11 million.
At the helm and guiding the Belgian effort is Spaniard Roberto Martinez, who steered the star-studded team through World Cup qualifying with ease, racking up a total of 43 goals in 10 matches.
Ahead of Belgium's home friendlies against Mexico on Friday and Japan on Tuesday, ESPN FC sat down with the former Everton manager to discuss a range of issues surrounding the Belgium national team, including just how the Red Devils got into this position, whether he considers the side a realistic World Cup contender and why it is important to have Vincent Kompany fit next summer.
Q: There is a huge amount of talent throughout this Belgium squad. Is this the best group of players you've coached?
A: Absolutely. It's very evident the quality that we have in the squad, and then I think what I like is the real desire to be part of the squad. You could go up to a pool of 45 players who all for one reason or another could bring something to the national team.
Q: Can Belgium win the World Cup?
A: We have to be in the position that we can go into any game and just enjoy the role that these players have. What I don't want is for the team to feel pressurized or the team to feel that the talent that everyone highlights makes the players feel extra pressure. They shouldn't. These players are where they are because they have careers with a lot of sacrifice and have worked extremely hard to be recognized as they are. So now [the World Cup] is an opportunity.
Q: How are you hoping to help players not get weighed down by expectations?
A: What we try to work on is the specifics of the game, not trying to think about the things you cannot affect, [like the] expectations, the perception. This golden generation is a very good generation, but that doesn't give you the right to win a game.
Q: What have the Belgium football association and the Pro League clubs done right to produce so many quality players?
A: First and foremost, the federation and the coaches sat down and drew a plan 12 years ago of where they wanted Belgian football to go. They didn't see a specific identity in the team, they didn't see things going in the right manner, and when you draw some sort of vision, it is very easy for everyone to jump in with clarity. It has had results, with playing a certain way, establishing a system that at that time was a 4-3-3 with a lot of wingers who could play in 1-vs.-1 situations.
Then in the day to day, I've been very impressed with the way the federation works with the Pro League. There aren't many countries in Europe in which the federation and the league work hand in hand. Here, maybe because geographically you can do it in a small country, it allows you to have a hands-on role for both institutions to work together in order to develop young players. Here, from the age of 14 until the age of 18, there is a very clear way of developing players, and then there are clubs to give young players opportunities at 17, 18 or 19 in the Pro League, which is a necessary step. And then I'd say the culture of the Belgian player can adapt to go abroad, is aware of what is needed to be a team player, and that is very important. It's not easy to go to other leagues.
Q: Can it continue?
A: I think it is going to be difficult to replicate the levels of individuals that this generation has. I think we need to be realistic. Certain players can have very good development process, but there is almost a genetic aspect that is very difficult to reproduce. But it is one of our goals that everything we do now is trying to put into planning the generation that is going to come underneath. I think that's important.
Q: When you took over Belgium, Napoli's Dries Mertens was still widely considered a winger before Maurizio Sarri moved him up front, and he almost instantly seemed to become one of the hottest strikers in Europe. Did that surprise you?
A: I think Dries is such an intelligent footballer that position is just appreciating space, appreciating players around him and being able to link up and use what he has, which is an incredible clinical eye in front of goal. He could do a job in any position ... It has been a very enjoyable period to see Dries growing into one of the most influential footballers not only in Serie A but in European football.
Q: Does the lack of starts for Michy Batshuayi at Chelsea worry you at all?
A: What I've seen with Michy is that he's been growing a lot. He's developed in terms of the human side of the footballer. He's become very mature. It's not an easy move to go from Olympique Marseille to London and the competition you look at in a big club is there. So you've got two No. 9s now challenging for minutes. What I've enjoyed is that his mindset has been very good [and] whenever the team needed him he can make the difference. Last season, he scored the all-important goal to win the title for Chelsea, which after being out of the side for a long time shows you the concentration he has.
Q: Vincent Kompany has had plenty of injury problems of late. How vital for Belgium is it that he is fit for Russia 2018?
A: When you are talking about going into a major tournament, you need the talent and the physicality of the players, but I think the mind becomes essential. I think Vincent with the other experienced players brings that know-how of what is needed to win football games. I think Vincent brings that leadership as a human being that is needed in our group, but he needs to be fully fit. It would be a major, major boost to have his experience in the group.
Q: You must be happy to see Tottenham defensive duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld bring their understanding at club level onto the international stage?
A: There is nothing better than players having that understanding of players' strengths, and when you develop that at club level, especially in a club that is now collecting very impressive results like against Real Madrid in the Champions League and the way they've been finishing in the top positions in the Premier League. I think it is very important.
Q: What do you make of the Everton situation? Is David Unsworth ready for the manager's job?
A: It's a situation that you don't want to see. When you are a manager for the best part of three seasons, you become an Evertonian, and from that point of view, you follow the football club, and you want to see the club go from strength to strength, so it's not for me to enjoy that side at all. It's something I hope can change very quickly, and I'm sure there'll be a lot thought behind the scenes, and at board level they'll have to make the right decisions.
David Unsworth is an Evertonian. As a player, he's been through everything at that club. As a coach, he's had a massive role in knowing the young players at the club, and now the role will depend a lot on what Everton want. If Everton want instant success, trying to get silverware and as close as they can to the European positions, it's difficult for a manger without experience in the Premier League to take that role. But if their view is the opposite, to have a calm transitional period with someone who knows the club and can bring the youngsters to the first team, then he has the knowledge and the passion for it.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.