During his tenure at Everton FC from 2013-16, Roberto Martinez managed three Belgian players: Romelu Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Marouane Fellaini.
Born to Congolese parents, Lukaku grew up in Antwerp, a large metropolis located in Belgium’s northern Flemish Region where Dutch is the main language. Mirallas, whose father was born in Spain, grew up in Liege, part of Belgium’s French-speaking Walloon Region. Fellaini, born to Moroccan parents, was brought up in Brussels, the focal point of the nation’s bilingual Brussels-Capital Region.
“You could not find more extreme characters and backgrounds,” Martinez said. “When you think they represent the same nation and national team, that makes you curious.”
Belgians weren’t just starring at Everton in the Premier League. Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois led Chelsea in attack and defense, respectively, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Nacer Chadli and Mousa Dembele were key cogs in the midfield and backline at Tottenham, and Kevin De Bruyne was a midfield maestro at Manchester City.
So when he had the opportunity to manage the Belgian men’s national team in 2016, Martinez jumped at the chance to not only lead some of the top players in Europe, but to discover how a diverse nation of approximately 11.5 million produced so many high-quality players.
“I think I was probably too young in football terms to go from the club level to international but the reason I wanted to was because this outstanding football is coming from a variety of mentalities, characters and talent all representing the same nation,” Martinez said. “ … International football is something I always wanted to be involved with and to be involved in a World Cup is something I always wanted to do, but I never had the thought of having such a competitive group of players to go into a major tournament like that.”
Birth of a golden generation
Jan Vertonghen made his senior international debut on June 2, 2007. The nation’s all-time caps leader has seen Belgium at its best and Belgium at its worst.
The Red Devils failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and 2010, and the European Championships in 2004, 2008 and 2012. During this time period, Belgium fell to an all-time low of 71st in the FIFA rankings in June 2007.
Managers came and went as Rene Vandereycken (2002-05), Franky Vercauteren (2009), Dick Advocaat (2009-10) and Georges Leekens (2010-12) all attempted to right the ship, but just as assistant manager Marc Wilmots was waiting in the wings to take charge—he was appointed manager on May 15, 2012—the next generation of superstars were ready for their opportunity as well.
“For the first five years of my national team career we were just very poor and we needed that confidence back,” Vertonghen said. “Then there was the generation I was part of. It started in my opinion with guys like (Vincent) Kompany and Fellaini, who transferred to the Premier League and brought that confidence back into the national team, and from there we took off.”
Players including Kompany, Fellaini, Vertonghen, Mirallas and Dembele who were instrumental in guiding Belgium to a fourth-place finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were ready to lead the senior side. Coupled with players including Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard, Axel Witsel and Christian Benteke, journalists began referring to the new crop of Belgians as the “golden generation,” which was quite an upgrade from being deemed “very ill” at times during their previous struggles.
With players thriving at some of Europe’s largest and most successful clubs, the excitement returned to Belgium. During the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, the Royal Belgian Football Association (RBFA) created “Devils Challenges” to engage fans ahead of Belgium’s first international tournament since 2002.
“We did great things for the fans and made sure we were accessible, so we would attract the fans to the stadium,” said Lukaku, Belgium’s all-time leading scorer. “That’s how we built the hype. That campaign from 2012 until the World Cup in 2014 was the best thing. Every game we played at home was 50,000 people; the atmosphere was crazy. It was really great to connect with the fans and make sure we were accessible to them.”
Led by its golden generation, Belgium did a complete 180, not only qualifying for the next two major tournaments—2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 European Championships—but advanced to the quarterfinals in each while climbing up the FIFA rankings in the process to No. 1 for the first time ever in November 2015.
Despite the success, a shock 3-1 loss to Wales in the Euros—heralded as “the greatest night in [Welsh] football history”—would spell the end of Wilmots’ time in charge, with two years remaining on his contract.
The Royal Belgian FA released a statement saying “that the intended goals have not been reached. There is a common sense that the team needs a new impulse to lead this group towards a top result at a major tournament.”
With the golden generation on the cusp of international glory, who would be the right person to guide them to the top? Rather than looking inward as it often did, the Royal Belgian FA searched beyond its borders for just the 10th time since 1910.
An outsider’s perspective
Following the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830, French was promoted as the state’s official language, particularly because it was utilized by the aristocracy, high clergy and upper class—the part of the population that was represented in the parliament—while Dutch, utilized in the northern Flemish part of the country, was viewed as second-class and a language of the past.
The Flemish movement of the 19th and 20th centuries sought equality, or separation from, the long-dominant French speaking Walloons, resulting in Flemish becoming Belgium’s second official language in 1898.
Today, Belgium is divided into three regions: the Flemish Region (6.6 million), Walloon Region (3.6 million) and Brussels-Capital Region (1.2 million). Not only that, but within the regions there is a Dutch-speaking community, French-speaking community, German-speaking community, and a bilingual community of the Brussels-Capital, each with its own legislative body and government. French, Dutch and German are all official languages.
Yet despite the complexities of the Belgian state structure, all players representing the national team—regardless of what region they hail from or what language they speak—represent the Red Devils.
“When we work there’s only one thing on our mind: it’s to make history for Belgium,” Martinez said. “When you are a Red Devil, you become an ambassador—an ambassador of 11 million people and I think it brings a real good example of the diversity of different cultures within a nation working together and the big advantages of doing that. If you can share a goal and a name, that diversity becomes very positive.”
Avoiding any potential allegiances or favoritism by hiring another Belgian manager, the RBFA sought a Spaniard to unite. Martinez, who was relieved of his duties at Everton on May 12, 2016, was appointed manager on August 3, becoming just the second foreign manager since 1958 to guide the Red Devils.
“Roberto is a fantastic person to work with,” RBFA CEO Peter Bossaert said. “He is a great professional, who is the ideal coach to take our team to the next level and compete for silverware.”
Martinez had plenty of positives working in his favor despite being new to the country, its complex history and multitude of languages.
Not only was the Spaniard coming from a neutral standpoint, unlike prior Belgian managers who may have favored one region and language over the other, Martinez was also used to managing a diverse group of players, including Belgians, during his 10+ years at the club level in England, which included guiding Wigan to the 2013 FA Cup.
“I know at the beginning it seemed like, ‘Why is a foreigner coming into our national team? This is the most precious group of players we have, so why do we give that to a foreigner?’” Martinez said. “Slowly that became the biggest strength. My biggest strength in this position is that I’m neutral. My decisions can only be seen as football decisions because I’m not attached to a Flemish background, Wallonia background or even German background.
“My decisions are tough decisions, but they are football decisions made for the good of the team.”
Rather than playing favorites, Martinez leveled the playing field. Meetings were conducted in English since most of the players understood the language or played for English clubs. Egos were put aside to focus on the greater good: winning.
And Belgium did just that.
The Red Devils dominated the qualification process for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, going 9-1-0 (28 points) while outscoring opponents 43-6. Lukaku was one of the top scorers in qualification regardless of confederation with 11 goals.
Belgium carried that momentum into Russia in the summer of 2018 with three wins in Group G: 3-0 vs. Panama, 5-2 vs. Tunisia and 1-0 vs. England.
The biggest test came in the Round of 16 against Japan. Trailing 2-0 after 52 minutes, Belgium scored three goals, including Chadli’s match-winner in the 94th minute to advance to the quarterfinals. Belgium beat Brazil 2-1 in the next round before losing 1-0 to eventual champions France in the semifinals.
The Red Devils beat England for a second time that summer, 2-0 in the third-place game, to cement themselves in Belgian lore officially as the golden generation by besting their fourth-place finish in the 1986 World Cup. Courtois was awarded the Golden Glove award as the tournament’s best goalkeeper, while Hazard won the Silver Ball as the second-best player, and Lukaku took home the Bronze Ball for third-highest goal scorer.
Belgium has also cemented itself atop the FIFA rankings, a position they haven’t relinquished since October 2018.
“He’s been unbelievable as a manager, as a trainer, as coach, and as a person,” Vertonghen said of Martinez. “I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t love him in and around the national team. He came in here and he really created a group feeling. It’s probably good he was from abroad and not too involved in all the politics around the country.
“For me, he’s the No. 1 reason we are No. 1 in the FIFA rankings for two years now.”
Since the World Cup, Belgium hasn’t slowed down. The Red Devils topped Group 2 in League A of the UEFA Nations League by going 5-0-1, earning a spot in the semifinals against defending World Cup champion France in October.
“We don’t care which country the coach comes from,” De Bruyne said. “If he’s a good coach and the team performs well, everybody’s OK with it. He came in and had a clear philosophy of what he wanted to do with the national team and I think we’re doing it really well. He’s done a good job and is also doing a good job with the youth in trying to bring them in.
“… We need the new players coming in and becoming better players because there’s going to be a day when they have to take over from us.”
A bright future?
While Belgium is enjoying arguably its most successful stretch of soccer in its history, the mission hasn’t been accomplished yet. The players, manager and FA understand the No. 1 ranking is a nice feather in their cap, and so is a bronze medal from the 2018 World Cup, but it’s far from the end goal.
They also know the golden generation is nearing its end, especially with international tournaments every two years. The upcoming European Championships set for June 11 to July 11, were postponed a year due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, while the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is scheduled to take place between November 21 and December 18.
For many players including Dries Mertens (33 years old), Vertonghen (33), Witsel (32), Alderweireld (31), Chadli (31), Hazard (30), De Bruyne (29), and Courtois (28), these next two years might be their last chance at hoisting a major trophy for Belgium, and achieving gold with the golden generation.
“We know we had an opportunity in 2018 to win,” Lukaku said. “Now we have a good opportunity to do well at Euros. You have to try to maybe avenge the feelings you had in 2018 because it was a tough loss for us against a very good French team. Now in 2021, we have a good group with a couple of new additions of young players who are really good and ready for it. If we do well in Euros, why not go for it in the World Cup and try to get a better result than what we had in 2018?
“Now people have really big expectations when we play. They don’t look at us like Belgium is a small country, we’re looked at like one of the favorites.”
Transitioning from the golden generation to the next soon-to-be-named generation is also on the mind of Martinez, who was appointed technical director in November 2018.
He said he has no trouble sacrificing his win percentage to give younger players much-needed experience during friendlies and major tournament qualifiers with one eye on the present and another focused on the future.
Defender Hannes Delcroix (21 years old) and 23-year-old forward Dodi Lukebakio earned their first senior caps this past fall, while 22-year-old goalkeeper Gaetan Coucke was called up for the first time. Teenagers Jeremy Doku (18) and Yari Verschaeren (19) are nearing double-digit senior appearances as well.
“We need to understand that unless we play the players now at the cost of results, we will suffer in the future and we’re not prepared to do that,” Martinez said. “In the previous camp and in a friendly against Ivory Coast (on October 8), we had five Under-21 players and two U-19s. That’s a wonderful sign that the things behind the scenes have been working quickly and well.”
While the work behind the scenes may go unnoticed, or at least overshadowed compared to match results, particularly in major tournaments, Belgium’s golden generation has not only united a country, but given it hope for the summer of 2021, winter of 2022 and beyond. It’s also why Martinez’s contract with the RBFA was extended through Qatar 2022, citing unfinished business.
“Belgium is a country with three different parts, each speaking a different language and with a quite complicated political structure, however, when our Red Devils compete in a big tournament, Belgium is united as ever,” Bossaert said. “That unity is also something we see in the team: our Belgian Red Devils are a mix of Flemish-speaking and French-speaking players from different ethnic backgrounds. But that is not even a theme within the team. They are a mirror of society and show a perfect image of unity to our fans.”
Since the lead up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there is a renewed sense of unity and pride in Belgium thanks to its Red Devils. With nearly three million combined followers on Instagram and Facebook, the Belgian Red Devils and Royal Belgian Football Association are the biggest influencers in the country.
Its star players continue to be some of the biggest influences throughout Europe, playing for clubs including Real Madrid, Manchester City, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund and Benfica.
The excitement is there. Now it’s up to the golden generation and a Spaniard to go out with one—or two—major statements.
“It’s been a very humbling experience, the power of football to unify a nation,” Martinez said. “Obviously there are many organizations doing a great job, but there’s nothing that brings the nation together than a Red Devils’ match.
“There’s a responsibility as a coach to implement the right tactics to win and there’s also a responsibility of allowing all the dreams and passions of the whole nation to come together and feel good about something everyone shares.”