MOSCOW: He doesn’t speak their language. Any of them. But, says Roberto Martinez, that’s been the advantage of coaching the Belgians, to whom he speaks “the language of football”.
As the Red Devils compete for the World Cup in Russia, the Spaniard brought in from England two years ago is getting credit for moulding a “golden generation” of talented individuals into a multicultural, multilingual team that he says can turn Belgium’s awkward divisions into a strength on the field.
“I’m a neutral figure,” Martinez said last week.
“It’s very easy for me to judge the person as a footballer. For me it doesn’t make a difference if he’s from the Flemish part or Wallonia part or where they are from.”
Ahead of Monday’s late round of 16 match against Japan, Belgium are heavy favourites to reach the quarter-finals and are desperate to go further after disappointment at going out at that stage of the 2014 World Cup and, to Wales, at Euro 2016.
Under previous coach Marc Wilmots, a former national captain, critics put under-achievement down to failure to weld the team into anything like the sum of its outstanding parts. The French-speaking Walloon Wilmots complained of being hounded by Dutch-speaking media in Flanders angry over his selections.
Martinez relishes having no dog in that fight. “I’m making all my decisions based on football,” Martinez said last week. “I’ve got no background in all the culture and diversity in Belgium.”
By staying away from the language debate, which divides the 11.5 million Belgians broadly in half, the Spaniard who grew up in similarly linguistically tense Catalonia said: “It allows me to speak football language. I’m very neutral.”
English has become the lingua franca of the Belgian squad, sidestepping tension between Flemings and Walloons. That neutrality is reflected more broadly: fans in the stadium chant “Belgium!” — not “Belgie” nor “Belgique”, nor indeed “Belgien”, in their country’s third official language, German.
“We Are Belgium” reads the team sponsor’s ubiquitous slogan, again in English only. The sponsor, Belgium-based world’s biggest brewer AB InBev, also renamed its leading local brand for the duration of the World Cup; it is now called “Belgium”.
The players, all but one of whom plays for clubs outside Belgium and whose diversity of backgrounds extends well beyond Flanders and Wallonia to family roots in Belgium’s former colony of Congo as well as to Morocco, Portugal and Kosovo, seem happy.
“We are Belgium,” said midfielder Axel Witsel, who plays in China, on the use of English on the training ground and pitch.
“We are all together and that’s the most important thing.”
Striker Romelu Lukaku, whose father played for Zaire, told The Players’ Tribune magazine: “I’ll start a sentence in French and finish it in Dutch and I’ll throw in some Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala depending on what neighbourhood we’re in.
“I’m Belgian. We’re all Belgian. That’s what makes this country cool, right?”
For Martinez, that diversity in the squad has not been a weakness but a strength, giving him a selection of players who are open from a young age to adapting to new environments.
“Sometimes I hear negatives about this diversity in Belgium but this is a great advantage to have all this diversity and backgrounds coming together,” he said.
“They are incredible human beings that they want to be part of the national team,” he added. “It’s about building a group.
“That’s probably where we developed into after two years.”