Dubai: Belgium coach Roberto Martinez talks a good game. While manager of Wigan he described being in the relegation battle every season as a unique opportunity. Hang on a minute, an opportunity for what, exactly? Nobody really knew. Maybe he meant it was a chance for his players to show they could scrap. Well, they failed eventually and the club slid out of the Premier League.
But that same season he masterminded their FA Cup success by beating Manchester City in the 2013 final. Many believed it to be a fluke.
Then the Spaniard left the Latics for the Everton manager’s role after David Moyes was snatched by Manchester United. In his first season at Goodison Park the team finished fifth, only narrowly missing out on the Champions League. His following two seasons were poor and he was subsequently sacked but landed an even more prestigious job months later as he took over from Marc Wilmots as the new head coach of the Belgium national team.
It was a move that helped build his reputation as one of football’s most modern-thinking managers. But, what has he actually achieved with them?
The Red Devils may have spent much of the time under his command as the world’s No 1-rated team but without a trophy to back that up, it is almost meaningless. It is comparable to the highest ranked tennis player who has never won a Grand Slam. No team has ever been the world’s best without ever having a major trophy to their name somewhere in their history. Even the great Holland sides that appeared to be drawing a blank won the 1988 Euros. But Belgium have won nothing and the pressure is on Martinez to prove himself.
The next four weeks will be crucial to him because when you look at the Belgium squad it is flooded with talent. That is why he is under more pressure than others to deliver. He has no excuse if they fail to reach the final at the very least. This is the last chance for Belgium’s golden generation to leave their mark on world football – and it could well also be Martinez’s. It will be a case of now or never for the former midfielder to show the world he is a managerial genius.
He has masterminded some great results during his tenure – the last-eight win over Brazil at the last World Cup was probably his best. But then Belgium then lost against France in the semifinal. And then they were knocked out in the quarterfinals of Euro 2020. It’s hardly been memorable.
Martinez will try to plot Belgium’s path to the final in Qatar but it won’t be easy, even with a side boasting two of the top ten in the Ballon d’Or rankings in midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and keeper Thibaut Courtois. They should easily get out of a group comprising Croatia, Morocco and Canada - the latter whom they play first - but then in The Round of 16 they could face Germany and then and Portugal in the quarters if results go as they are expected. They could meet Brazil, Argentina or England in the final. All three would represent very hard tests.
But this is boom or bust for Martinez and Belgium. Anything less than getting to the final would be a failure and the debate whether the modern-thinking coach is a hit or a myth will rage on.