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Roberto Martinez has no doubt what he expects from the delayed spectacle of Euro 2021. “It will be the most emotional tournament ever,” says the Belgium head coach. “I think it can become a celebration. It can set a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for this Covid nightmare.”
Martinez is never less than infectiously enthusiastic, but on this occasion he has a point. After three long years starved of a major football tournament, finally one – and a semblance of normality – is upon us.
Of course, Martinez has more cause to be optimistic than most. He has, after all, been in charge of the world’s No 1 ranked team for five years, with an abundance of riches in his squad – Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and so on – and what manager would not be salivating at the prospect of unleashing that talent?
Nevertheless, five years is still longer than Martinez expected to be at the helm. It is easy to forget the disunity and disappointment that he inherited after Marc Wilmots’ fractious time in charge that ended with the Euro 2016 quarter-final defeat to Wales and a heap of recrimination.
It helps that the former Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton manager has – in common with other coaches his age such as Gareth Southgate – approached the job as if he was still in charge of a club. For the driven 47-year-old it is a full-time, all-consuming role.
“I didn’t feel comfortable losing that intensity,” admits Martinez admits, who happily took on the added responsibility of becoming Belgium's technical director three years ago. “They could see I was in the office probably more than I should have been as head coach!
“My job is to think as if I’m going to be here for 50 years! I have to plan for the Euros, the World Cup [in Qatar]. I have done it my career – looking at the young players and seeing where you are going to be in three, four, five years. From Swansea onwards. You see a player like Joe Allen getting a really big move and that is satisfying.
“I did it at Wigan, at Everton – where I saw the likes of Mason Holgate and Tom Davies. At international level it’s an even longer period. You are always planning for two major tournaments ahead.”
Martinez is not the sort of character to be cowed by swollen expectations. Indeed, he embraces the fact that Belgium will be one of the favourites when the tournament begins on Friday.
“We have been number one for the last three years,” he says, before adding: “But we need to remember that with the format of this tournament no-one will have an advantage as good as England – to be able to play up to six games out of seven at Wembley makes it very much a home tournament.”
Belgium, of course, have ended up on top against Southgate’s side – twice at the last World Cup on their way to their best-ever third-place finish, and also in winning their Nations League group to reach this autumn’s finals, even if they they did lose at Wembley.
There is another reason to be excited: uncertainty. Martinez firmly believes the format – 24 nations playing in 11 countries – and what everyone has been through since the Euros were postponed in March last year makes it an even more open competition.
“I expect a lot of surprises. We need to be ready for that. There are a lot of host cities, a lot of travelling involved and we don’t know how the protocols will affect individual players. So I think it’s a tournament that will bring an incredible uncertainty.”
In contrast to England, Belgium play two of their Group B games in St Petersburg, on Saturday against Russia – who will therefore be at home – and Finland, and also face Denmark in Copenhagen. Martinez has, therefore, decided to base his squad at their training centre in Tubize, south of Brussels.
It becomes even more challenging. The four nations in the semi-finals of the Russia World Cup were all European – with France beating Croatia in the final – which shows how hard it will be to win the Euros, with Martinez also adding Spain, Germany, Holland and Italy to the mix.
“When you bring those eight teams you realise this is probably even more a World Cup pedigree tournament than the World Cup itself,” he says, with holders Portugal to also consider. “A World Cup is unique, bringing all the nations together and the size of the tournament, but specifically with what you find on the pitch, the European Championships will be tougher.”
Belgium’s task at the Euros is perhaps more onerous than it might have been. A squad that was already the second oldest at the tournament – only Sweden have a higher average age than Belgium’s 29 years 57 days – is now a year older thanks to the delay caused by the Covid pandemic.
True to form, Martinez has treated the delay as a positive – he says it gave him an opportunity to “press pause” and delve deep beyond the golden generation of Belgian players to examine what is coming through.
“Personally I always enjoy building football clubs,” Martinez reiterates, and he has taken the same approach to Belgium to “expand the talent pool”. That included detailed scouting and profiling “starting with the 2004 births down to 2000” so he could “give them a clear idea of what is expected to be at their best in 2026”.
Although he is reluctant to name names as to what he found, Martinez is such a football enthusiast that he cannot help himself. “Jeremy Doku is a wonderful one-v-one player,” he says of the 18-year-old Rennes forward who has made his squad, before adding three more for the future.
“There’s Yari Verschaeren, a great prospect, Charles De Ketelaere, Zinho Vanheusden,” Martinez says. Verschaeren is a 19-year-old attacking midfielder with Anderlecht, De Ketelaere is a 20-year-old midfielder with Club Brugge and Vanheusden, 21, plays at centre-back for Standard Liege. So you heard it here first.
“Those are a new generation who we feel will be essential for the future,” Martinez says. “They know what is expected to be the number one nation in the world.”
As to those in Martinez’s current squad, one of his greatest achievements has been to galvanise such a potentially disparate and outspoken group. “When you look at Belgium we have three official languages, we have three governments, everything is quite diverse, it’s not a straightforward way of working,” Martinez explains. “It’s a challenging nation, but the Red Devils represent that diversity in a good way.
“Everyone can come up with different ideas of seeing things, but in the end what matters is that they are together as a team. It’s a good moment: there’s a lot of caps, a lot of experience, a lot of players who have won titles this season.
“If you go from Kevin De Bruyne to Romelu Lukaku to Yannick Carrasco winning league titles, Youri Tielemans and Timothy Castagne winning the FA Cup for the Leicester for the first time in their history... all these moments add to the substance when they are with the national team.”
Given that Martinez is still so young, given that he has approached the national team job as if he were a club manager, is it a fair assumption that he will go back to club football one day? He is, after all, perennially linked with a return to the Premier League.
“I am really bad at predicting the future!” he says. “When I signed for Belgium there was the World Cup two years later and maybe then [I thought] I would go back to club-level football, but five years down the line I am still enjoying my day-to-day work and really happy with what I am allowed to do.
“Doing the Euros was a big target, it looked like I would do that and it would be my time in Belgium. But it was delayed and I cannot think of anything else apart from going into a major tournament and seeing what we can do.
“The future? The answer is very clear. Don’t ask me because whatever I tell you, I will probably be wrong. What is true is that I always look at football as today and the intensity you have to put in and whatever happens tomorrow I will accept.”
But would he consider leaving after a successful campaign at the Euros? “As a manager I always enjoy building clubs and then I work through a philosophy and a way of playing and to create good memories with fans... everyone wants to win titles and achieve objectives and that will never change,” Martinez explains.
“I look back on seven years in the Premier League and everything is about the next game. You never have the chance to look back and I have had the time to do that and assess all the work.
“And then in the last five years of international football there have been the demands of a team that wants to stay as number one. It’s a real good way of developing as a coach. I have not looked any further than these Euros and then we will see.”