Roberto Martinez interview: ‘The Golden Generation’ of Belgium will step up on World Cup stage

The Red Devils have the individual talent to make them the envy of many in Qatar but have so far flattered to deceive when it comes to the biggest moments at major tournaments

Richard Edwards
Wednesday 23 November 2022 06:02 GMT
Roberto Martinez’s side were unbeaten in their World Cup qualification campaign
Roberto Martinez’s side were unbeaten in their World Cup qualification campaign (BELGA/AFP via Getty Images)

Belgium may not be weighed down by history – but that doesn’t make expectation levels any less hefty.

Roberto Martinez’s side have been the number one side in the world for most of the four years between the last World Cup in Russia and this tournament in Qatar.

They’ve also reached the last eight of every major tournament since 2014, but have yet to make a major final. Their third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup is, to date, the best achievement by a side who many would consider to be capable of so much more.

Their most recent brush with disappointment came at last year’s Euros, after an epic clash with Italy at Munich's Allianz Arena. It's a game that Belgian boss, Roberto Martinez, remains convinced could have gone either way.

“I think it’s natural that there are some games in a tournament that you get attached to as a neutral. and I think that Italy game is probably one of them,” he says. “They pressed us with their physicality and their tempo but when we came to terms with that, we created a couple of good opportunities. We were probably one good chance away [from drawing level and taking the game to penalties].

“I remember Jeremy Doku going past a couple of players and then cutting inside – if he had hit the target, it could have been a totally different situation.

“It was a fully charged game, the winner of that game got totally prepared for what was coming in the rest of the tournament. I think that game made us a stronger team.”

Italy would leave Munich with the scent of victory permeating their nostrils and would go on to beat England in the final on a chaotic night at Wembley. Belgium, meanwhile, were left with nothing but the bitter taste of defeat.

Qualification for Qatar was a formality, Martinez’s side finishing five points ahead of Wales in an unbeaten campaign. The Diables Rouges were less impressive in the Nations League, finishing well adrift of group winners Holland.

Their up and down fortunes over the past 18 months have matched those of their big-name players. Kevin De Bruyne has been consistently excellent in the Manchester City midfield, but Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard have endured a rollercoaster couple of seasons.

Martinez, though, is unconcerned. Both, he says, step up when required on the biggest stage.

“It’s quite clear that we’re talking about the Golden Generation of Belgian football,” says Martinez.

"To have a player like Romelu Lukaku, the stats speak for themselves. He’s a player who has accumulated the largest amount of transfer fees in anyone’s career and you see the impact that he has on our team.

“Then Eden Hazard is the captain, he’s the one who has a very unique influence on the players around him. He’s the player who has won everything.

“Everything is about the playing time and the minutes that they can have. We know their influence, we know their roles. They have an incredible understanding of what is expected of them. They’ve got this capacity of being big Belgian ambassadors in our team.

“If you want to be successful in a World Cup, you have to play many games in a short period of time, it’s important to watch that.”

Martinez lauded Romelu Lukaku’s impact on the team, saying the striker’s stats ‘speak for themselves’
Martinez lauded Romelu Lukaku’s impact on the team, saying the striker’s stats ‘speak for themselves’ (AFP via Getty Images)

Few sides in global football have made qualification from their group look as facile as Belgium in recent years. They have won their last eight group stage matches at major tournaments. They last experienced defeat in the opening match of Euro 2016, when Italy beat them 2-0 in Lyon.

Canada and Morocco won’t be causing them too many sleepless nights in the run-up to the big off. Croatia, finalists last time out, will be a far stiffer test. A friendly defeat to Egypt on Friday was hardly the kind of warm-up the Spaniard was after, just days before their opening match.

The calm approach adopted by Martinez, though, will remain unchanged.

“It’s going to be a good assessment for us to see how we can adjust (in the group stage) and how we can feel ourselves,” he says. “From that point on, if we get through, we’ll be in tournament mode and you just can’t predict how you’re going to feel in those moments. Everything changes after those first three games.”

Nervous is likely to be the default mood of most fans once the formalities of the group stage are completed. After so many near-misses, it could be a case of now or never for this particular Golden Generation.

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