Eyebrows were raised when Roberto Martinez, formerly a boss in the English Premier League, was appointed coach of the world’s third-ranked team Belgium and he tells RT’s Stan Collymore about the adjustment that was required.
Former Everton and Wigan Athletic head coach Roberto Martinez is preparing for the biggest few weeks of his management career. In 2016 he was appointed as the custodian of Belgium’s supposed ‘golden generation’, a squad of players described as possibly the best collective in that country’s sporting history.
“You can imagine it’s very, very different,” Martinez tells Collymore about the difference between club and international management. “Straight away, what you have to expect is that there are different rules and it’s just adapting towards that. You haven’t got the normal contact that you have with a player at club level.”
Martinez developed a reputation in England as a gifted man-manager, someone who grew relationships on the training ground day in and day out. At international level, though, Martinez will only see his players during sporadic training camps throughout a season, limiting the time available to delve into details.
“I find it difficult, the lack of sharing those emotions at club level – when you win, when you lose you get tighter, you face adversity together and you can grow,” he says. “At international level it can only happen in the big tournaments.”
Martinez, who is 44-years-old, says that his age allows him the ability to travel the length and breadth of Europe to watch his players in action in the various leagues in which they compete – something which may not be an option for a coach of a different vintage.
“I think every national team coach position is different. I think it is the case that some nations need an older person because you can use your contacts, you can use your experience, you can use your know-how. You don’t really need the dynamic pace that a younger person would bring.
“I think, in our case in Belgium, 90 percent of our players are abroad. You want to follow them closely. Nowadays technology allows you to watch all the games and watch it from your office … but you need a younger person to clock those air-miles and get that dynamic approach."
Belgium’s squad will be one of the strongest in Russia when the tournament kicks off. In the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, they have three of the most dangerous attacking players in English football but also three players who know each other’s style of play inside-out, having been developed together in the Belgian system.
Is it a coincidence that Belgium are in the midst of this golden generation? Martinez says that it is the result of a concerted effort on behalf of Belgium’s football federation, a system of youth development which is now blossoming.
“The most important aspect that I can see is the unity towards developing a path for the player," Martinez stresses. “When you’re talking [about] some countries, the federation and the league normally don’t work together. Here in Belgium we have got the federation and the pro league working almost in the same building. That sends clear messages to the clubs.
“There are two elements here. One is developing the young player and giving him a good platform to play football. Nothing develops a player like playing competitive games. The other aspect is 11 million [population], three official languages [and] the majority of the younger generation speak English. That makes a very, very aware person.
“When I was a manager in the Premier League you would look at a Belgian player as someone who would come in and is going to open up straight away, is going to speak with everyone and is going to ask for a role. The adaptation for a Belgian player abroad, and especially in the Premier League which is one of the hardest leagues to adapt [to], is fantastic. That’s why the players are so successful abroad.”
But when there is expectation, pressure won’t be far behind it and it is something from which Martinez doesn’t stray away. He is well aware of what is expected of his talented squad, who, many suggest, can go all the way in Russia.
“The pressure of winning a point and winning three points is huge nowadays. An international game, you’ve got a whole nation that stops and stands still and it looks at what the players can do on the pitch.”