As reports of Barcelona’s interest in the Belgium manager intensify, he speaks to Goal about how he has created a club-like spirit with the Red Devils
In the life of Roberto Martinez, the past few months have been interesting to say the least.
Having led Belgium into Euro 2020 amid external claims that it was the last chance for the country’s ‘Golden Generation’ to win a major trophy, Martinez and his players came up short, losing to eventual winners Italy in the quarter-finals.
Fast forward three months, though, and there is more silverware on offer for the Red Devils in the shape of the Nations League, with the finals taking place in Italy this week.
Winning the trophy would ensure that hope remains strong for the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard to take home the biggest prize of them all, the World Cup, in just over a year’s time.
Will Martinez, though, still be in charge by then?
Despite having a contract with the Belgian FA that runs until the tournament in Qatar, the ex-Everton boss heads into this week’s games with question marks over his future.
Not because failure to win would see him sacked, but rather because he has emerged as one of the favourites to take over at Barcelona if, as expected, Ronald Koeman is relieved of his duties in the coming weeks.
Martinez’s work in lifting Belgium to No.1 in the world rankings, before keeping them there for three years, has not gone unnoticed at Camp Nou as they plan their own rebuild.
Belgium were reeling after being beaten by Wales in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016 when Martinez took over, but he has brought a consistency in performance level to the team, while he also became the country’s technical director in 2020 in a bid to oversee more than just the men’s national side.
He has implemented scouting and analysis programs used throughout the men’s and women’s game in the country, while also overseeing the upgrading of the team’s new training facility in Tubize, around 25 kilometres south of Brussels.
“It is powerful what these players have achieved,” Martinez tells Goal in an exclusive interview at the recently refurbished Proximus Basecamp. “This building itself was paid for in 2018, where the budget difference between reaching the [World Cup] quarter-finals – which was our aim – and what we managed in finishing third allowed us to build it.
“That’s part of the beautiful story of this generation, that they have built that structure that will stand there for the next 50 years after setting a standard in terms of play.”
Martinez has fostered an approach that is more akin to a club side than an international one.
“International football is a big challenge because you only get three sessions to prepare a game, but it was a conscious decision to establish a style of play from the beginning,” he explains.
“You can do it in two ways. One is that you just bring in the players who are in form and bring them together to represent the national team, or you can try to work together with that pool of talent and consider what you would do at a club level. You work and synchronise concepts that you can keep for a period of time.
“We decided to foster that talent to grow together. It is clear that the relationships have become very strong. As well as keeping real continuity with the players in the group, we want to keep it competitive and the door open for new players coming into the national team too.”
While fostering that team spirit has certainly paid dividends, getting over the final hurdle has remained elusive for this Belgium side as they prepare to face France in the semi-finals on Thursday.
Win that, and either Spain or a re-match with Italy will await them in the final, with all three of those countries aware of what it takes to win major tournaments given their successes of the past decade or so.
“I think there’s a big psychological barrier for a national team [that hasn’t won] to win a trophy,” Martinez continues. “We have seen national teams that have had good and bad moments in tournaments, like Italy did in 2018, but they feel whenever they are in a tournament that they have the right to win it.
“If you’ve never won a major tournament, you don’t feel like you have that psychological approach. We haven’t got that back-up of having been European champions or world champions to feel that way, but we do have the commitment and talent that this generation gives you.
“Whatever way you want to look at it, it is a story for Belgium. If we play Spain, I grew up in Spain and the other option is Italy, who stopped us in the Euros. France are the team that beat us at the semi-final of the World Cup. There’s a lot of stories and plans we need to make.”
And what of Martinez’s plans for the future, especially if a certain Catalan side come calling in the not-too distant future?
“My career shows that I don’t make plans to get to where I am now. I just go from project to project. You learn that you have to be committed to today. In football, if you start thinking ahead, you just drop your performance and underachieve in what you can do.
“In my case, I am very, very happy in what I am doing, and I am just trying to achieve the next steps. In the end, if I have to arrive at a decision where there’s a door. I will just try to make the best decision for everyone.
“I always say that in football, I believe it is about relationships and football project. It doesn’t matter where it might be in the world, it’s about having the time and means to have a long-term project and build something. That’s what I really enjoy, building something.
“That’s the importance: the person that believes in you, rather than the nature of the league that you are working in.”