Belgium's assistant coach Thierry Henry, right, with coach Roberto Martinez, center, and Axel Witsel during training. (Reuters Photo/Hannah McKay)

Do You Speak Belgium? English Bonds Martinez's 'Boring' Squad


JUNE 23, 2018

Moscow. With three national languages and a Spanish coach who talks in none of them, their World Cup camp might be a feuding Tower of Babel but Roberto Martinez has forged a harmony he is proud to say makes Belgium "boring."

A common language of global English unites a star-studded squad in which only one man still plays in the domestic Belgian league, China-based midfielder Axel Witsel told reporters on Friday (22/06) ahead of Saturday's Group G match against Tunisia.

"There's no problem," said the former Standard Liege, Benfica and Zenit St. Petersburg player. "We are Belgium. We are all together and that’s the most important thing."

Disappointments at past major tournaments have been marked by recriminations that reflect both a super-abundance of individual talent — with egos to match — and longstanding divisions between Belgium’s French- and Dutch-speaking halves.

It was Martinez’s record of forging disciplined team units in the English Premier League which helped get him hired after Marc Wilmots, Belgium's top World Cup goalscorer, failed to lead them beyond the quarter-finals in Brazil and at Euro 2016.

And it was a mark of the Spaniard's determination to put internal peace above personality that he withstood a storm of abuse from Belgian fans to leave behind Radja Nainggolan, saying the vocal Roma maestro would simply not fit in to a squad where he would play second fiddle to Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

When reporters probed for a story on the controversy, asking Witsel if Nainggolan had been in touch with the squad in Russia, Witsel batted the question away, flatly refusing to answer.

Prodded about the lack of controversy coming out of the camp compared to past Red Devils’ travels, Martinez made no excuses:

"We do want to be boring," he said. "We are a football team. We're not here to bring stories or try to fill pages for the wrong reasons. We want to be a group that cares about each other, and find a way to feed all the exceptional individual talent we have," said Martinez, who has spoken in the past of his admiration for how Belgium's sometimes awkward cultural and linguistic diversity also creates very adaptable footballers.

Often described as the institution which, perhaps even more than the king, unites Dutch-speaking Flemings, French-speaking Walloons and the small German community, a team where most of the players are multilingual is growing in confidence it can give their 11 million compatriots something to cheer about.

Having beaten Panama 3-0, victory over Tunisia would see Belgium qualified for the last 16 before meeting England on Thursday. But with expectations mounting back home that this "golden generation" could lift Belgium’s first World Cup, Martinez is keeping his head.

"The World Cup doesn't respect 'generations.' The World Cup doesn't respect big individual names. The World Cup only respects winning teams," he said.

"The only thing that matters is how we can become a team and work extremely hard for each other — and then the individual talent could show."


2018 World Cup