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 molding 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 quarterfinals 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”.