Roberto Martínez was “intrigued”. Intrigued as to how Belgium could produce “this generation” of footballers; intrigued as to whether there are more to follow; intrigued, also, as to why the British system has got it so wrong over the years. “And I can be critical of the British game because I have been part of it and I am to blame as well,” he says.
Martínez is in the reception area of the hotel that forms part of Belgium’s impressive national training centre at Tubize, 20 minutes from Brussels, close also to his new home in Waterloo, as he prepares for the crucial World Cup qualifier against Greece on Saturday, followed by a friendly away to Russia.
Challenging at the World Cup finals in Russia next year is the goal for Belgium’s coach, appointed last August after being sacked by Everton. But there is more to his role – which is partly why he stepped away from club management to “immerse” himself in international football.
“In ’95, at the age of 21, a little Spaniard, new to the UK, to go to the old Third Division (as a midfielder with Wigan Athletic), was a brave move,” Martínez says when I ask whether taking the job, moving to Belgium, was just that also. “In football you have to be fully committed, give your all, and then I don’t think there is any difficulty.”
Martínez has always been “curious”; always been someone who is intrigued, ready to change. But, still just 43 and with 10 years as a club manager, seven in the Premier League, it was still a surprise to see him leave that “intensity”. Martínez disagrees.
“I don’t see it as ‘taking international football’. I see it as ‘taking this squad’,” he says. “Yes, I was intrigued. I had managed Marouane Fellaini, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas at Everton – three Belgian players who are as different as you are going to get. And then you have the number of Belgium players in the Premier League and I was even more intrigued to find out why Belgian football has produced this generation. And then to be able to manage this group at international level was the perfect fit at that moment. If someone had asked me a year ago I would have said, ‘No, I don’t see myself in international football’. But when the opportunity was there I felt it was perfect.
“After finishing at Everton the options that I had didn’t propose anything different than I have done in the last 10 years. It was almost allowing something that would make me smile and that was clearly, by a mile, this opportunity. I wanted to use all the experience I have had over the last 10 years and take it to international level.”
Martínez is not just national team coach and it is interesting to hear how the Belgium federation involve him at every level to see “how we can maintain this structure, to develop young players for Belgian football so it doesn’t run out after this generation, understanding the league and how it can develop those young players”.
So what has Martínez found? “They have got a structure from 18 to 22, the key age group, and that’s what we got wrong in the British game. I can be critical of the British game because I have been part of it and I am to blame as well,” Martínez says. “In Britain there is the best structure from the age of nine to 18, too good, the facilities are too good.”
Too good? “Because I think the development of a young player should be in order to earn the right to get better facilities and appreciate what you are getting,” he argues.
“We have young players at the age of 18 who you send out on loan to League Two, League One, and they come back saying ‘what’s this?’ In the Premier League everything around them is too good.
“At that age it is not challenging enough. The nations where you see a big difference are, for example, Spain with the B-sides. You have a games programme that makes you grow and mature. In Belgium it is very similar and, for example, there are seven sports schools linked to professional clubs. Many of the players in the Premier League have gone through that structure – Kevin de Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois – and then these players go to the pro-league clubs and at 17, 18, 19 they are in the first-team. That’s the perfect development.”
B-teams, with Premier League clubs fielding teams in the lower leagues, have been discussed in England, he says. “I know there have been a lot of conversations about trying to get B-teams, in the professional leagues in England, but it’s difficult,” Martínez says. “No one has come up with a solution. You can understand it because everyone has a strong history. How are you going to give an opportunity to the 20 Premier League clubs to have a feeder team? But everyone involved in the British game has a responsibility to bring through the young players.
“In Belgium you have Youri Tielemans, 19, at Anderlecht, who has already played 130 games of first-team football. At 19. That’s development. In the British game you fight a lot for a structure to develop players but it’s difficult.”
There are young English players – including, of course, Ross Barkley and John Stones who Martínez developed at Everton and who he still feels passionately about. “I am a bit biased,” he says. “With these type of players you cannot talk about what they have not got and cannot do. You have to be positive and see what they can do and achieve and maybe then get in other players around them to give the team balance.”
Martínez also feels strongly about the need for a winter break. “What is a concern for the England manager, and I see in myself now, is that when you come out of the Premier League you understand that it is the most demanding league for a footballer,” he says (and there are 25 Belgians playing in England). “It’s not just about the number of games, or the intensity, which is high, but there is no break. And I’ve seen it this season when I have visited players in Italy, in Spain or Germany. Straight away there is almost – from a mental point – a bit of a light. They say to themselves, ‘OK, I’ve got a break in January, I’m going to do this with the family…’
“In the British game it’s almost 10 months non-stop. From day one to the last day and you rest together, play together and the mental fatigue you have at the end of it when you go away with your international team is one of my biggest worries. I can see the big difference, individually on a player, when they are in a league where there is a break.”
Belgians also, he says, are unique with language skills – Lukaku speaks five languages, for instance – and being “open” to travel, to “listen and learn”. “They are inspiring people. This is a small country, 11 million, and it gives you that sense of togetherness,” Martínez adds while, along with his Scottish wife, Beth, and young daughter, Luella, he is taking French and Flemish lessons.
Martínez’s goal is clear. With players such as Lukaku, De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco it is an incredibly exciting squad. “What we need is to become a team. It’s not enough to believe that the talent will get us through games,” Martínez says. “I want to create a team that is capable of performing at the level of the outstanding individuals we have. The top and bottom is: how good can we become?”
It is partly why he employs Thierry Henry as one of his assistants. “I wanted to get someone on the staff who could give real guidance at international level, who knows what it’s like as a player to carry the expectations of a country, to try to compete for a World Cup, or a European Championship,” Martínez says of the former France striker who won those tournaments, for the first time, with his country.
“Normally when you have a world-class player it’s difficult for him to be a good coach because it’s difficult to engage with players and pass the messages on but Thierry is a thinker and finds the right way.” As Martínez is trying to do, plotting that path to Russia – and be a contender at the World Cup, the “essence” of football, he says. Then what?
“I never plan my future,” he says. “Now it is qualification for Russia. After that we will see what comes along. You want to become better. The experiences at Swansea [as manager] were fantastic, the experiences in the Premier League [with Wigan and Everton] also, and I am still just 43. But top and bottom is I want to help the players as much as I can and become a better manager at the end of it.”