Q&A: Belgian coach Martinez on diversity and team development | News Qatar 2022 World Cup

When Roberto Martinez took over from Marc Wilmots as head coach of the Belgian national team in 2016, he was sure the team could achieve great things.

Two years later, at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Belgium finished third, the team’s best finish at the tournament, which featured memorable wins over Japan and Brazil.

Belgium will face Canada in their first match on November 23. Al Jazeera caught up with Martinez about the team’s plans and hopes for the upcoming World Cup:

Al Jazeera: What is your assessment of the teams you will face in your squad?

Roberto Martinez: An interesting group because very diverse. There is one European nation that we all know very well: Croatia. They have this wonderful generation that finished second in the 2018 World Cup. Since then there has been a lot of consistency with the coaches and the way they play.

Canada was very impressive. We follow them very closely, a team capable of beating the USA and Mexico. And then Morocco. Unless you are Belgian you don’t understand the story but there is a strong link. There are up to five or six players who were born in Belgium and that creates an even stronger bond. Even the staff members have been with both federations.

There is a very strong community of Moroccans in Belgium. So the ties will make it a great football derby.

Al Jazeera: Belgium finished third in 2018. How has your team evolved since then?

Martinez: There has been an evolution. I think we improved the competitive nature of having three players for each position. It’s getting harder and harder to narrow our list down to 26 players, even in goal. Everyone grows, develops and progresses in their role.

Even in the last game of our qualifying campaign, we were able to make a lot of changes and maintain our level and our way of playing. I’ve been here since 2016 and you can start to see that we’re working so that every player comes knowing what’s expected.

Al Jazeera: You are known to use the 3-4-3 formation. How has it evolved with the Belgian national team?

Martinez: I think systems are not important. The system is sometimes used to tailor your players and get the best relationships out of them. Sometimes it’s to accommodate the opposition.

The way of playing is important. We are quite flexible and we have shown that our 3-4-3, especially in the World Cup, suits our players much better than other systems.

But there will be times when we have to change the system and that’s a big focus we put on our young people. We need to develop flexible players who can play with different systems.

Al Jazeera: Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are instrumental players and have the quality to make football so easy. How does it feel to coach such talented players?

Martinez: They are two players that I prefer to appreciate as a fan. We don’t often watch in Belgium two players so contrasted by the exceptional talent they bring. We must appreciate them. It is not a question of evaluating them or trying to influence them. It’s more… we have to take advantage of what they bring.

They bring extreme talents. Eden likes to slow down the moment he is on the ball and then execute in individual situations. Kevin de Bruyne picks up the tempo of the game by executing incredible attacking plays. But like all the best players, they have a very good connection.

This is the beautiful aspect of what we have in Belgium. We appreciate this generation for what it is. Because we know it’s a pretty unique moment for our fans to have this kind of performance in front of them.

Eden Hazard warming up for the July 2, 2018 World Cup match against Japan in Russia [Toru Hanai/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: But Hazard and Romelu Lukaku have struggled with injuries and health issues. Is this a big concern for you?

Martinez: Hazard has found a solution since February. I would say with the new treatment he is pain free, he is ready to compete and enjoy his football. The role he has at Real Madrid and in the national team is completely different. I am not concerned at all. Of course, the lack of physical form can be a problem before a World Cup, but we have to adjust these elements.

With Lukaku, it’s very similar. In the summer, he got the move he wanted. He’s a vital part of a team with a huge mission to try and bring the Serie A title back to the city. I see him as someone enjoying every second of this challenge.

Al Jazeera: There has been a fairly recent explosion of Belgian talent. How did it happen?

Martinez: Well, it was a plan. There is no doubt that this was a conscious decision to sit down and try to identify what could be done to best develop Belgian talent. It started in 2000 when the national team was in a very difficult position.

There was a clear direction for all professional teams in Belgium on how to work and develop players from 14 and 15 up to the first team.

That’s the initial look, but then there was Belgium’s success story in Beijing at the Olympics where this generation started feeling the success.

Clubs in Belgium are doing a great job at academy level. There is also the success of each individual player who goes abroad and becomes very important at club level and progresses and goes to the best clubs in Europe. It prepares players in ways you can’t plan. It’s the truth.

Belgian Romelu Lukaku celebrates the goal
Romelu Lukaku celebrates the team’s second goal against Finland on June 21, 2018 at Saint Petersburg Stadium [Anatoly Maltsev/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: In 2018, you beat Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. Is this the most memorable win of your coaching career?

Martinez: It must be. When you’re a little boy and start loving the game, we all remember a moment on the streets re-enacting a World Cup with your friends.

In the World Cup, you have a tournament within a tournament – the knockout stage and the group stage. Playing a knockout match against Brazil is quite unique. For everyone in Belgium, not only playing against Brazil, but beating them is always a game we will remember and cherish.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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