Belgium's Roberto Martinez in a relaxed mood ahead of career-defining World Cup semifinal
"That sounds really good."
Roberto Martinez smiles and reacts to the phrase "There comes a World Cup semifinalist" as he approaches the ESPN team that will talk to him at the Belgium base camp in Dedovsk. The interview is off to a good start: There's probably no better way to greet him.
Hours away from what will be the most important game in his career and for the national team he currently coaches, a semifinal clash against France in Saint Petersburg, Martinez looks affable, relaxed and confident.
After a training session that had both rain and sunshine, Martinez, born in Spain, takes a few minutes to share his thoughts and feelings ahead of a game that could be one of the last two steps toward football heaven. It took several years and attempts for Belgium's golden generation to show that they are ready to finally take that leap forward, and this coaching team has a lot to do with their current success.
When Belgium went out to Argentina in 2014, frustration could not conceal the fact that there would be more opportunities. A roster with most of its key players still under 25 meant that there was time to fulfill their potential. The objective, hard but realistic, was to be the best by 2018.
Martinez confirms that: "This players have been working together extraordinarily well for many years, and they deserve to be exactly where they are today."
The coach does not look like a man at the crossroads of his professional journey. He smiles, mixes English with Spanish to say hello to the different journalists working at the base camp and shows no sign of being under pressure, something that might seem odd for a man in his position. But he knows that he has been working for two years to prepare for these seven games and that his players have the same commitment toward the goal.
"I feel that the most important aspect we worked on was the notion of being a team," Martinez says. "Individual skills and talent are important, but in these tournaments, it's absolutely necessary to play as a team."
Seven weeks ago, players and coaching team started working together at the base camp with the same purpose: Their potential as players would be of use only if they could create a collective soul that would be stronger than any individual attempt. What they did against Brazil seems to prove that they passed the test with outstanding marks.
Back in Mexico 1986, Belgium got to the semifinals, but only after defeating the Soviet Union and Spain (the latter on penalties), two strong teams but with no World Cup titles between them by then.
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This time, they had to get past a five-time world champion, which gives them much more credit to feel that this time is the time.
"It is a trip into the unknown," Martinez says. "We've never been in such a situation, and that is why we need our team spirit more than ever against France. We need to be the best version of ourselves."
With regard to France, Martinez believes the two teams have something in common. "Both have the right mix of youth and experience and also lots of individual talent."
Martinez knows Paris Saint-Germain star Kylian Mbappe is a big threat, but he wants to pay attention to the whole picture.
"We will need to anticipate him and be well-positioned. We need to defend spaces more than the player himself," he says. "But we are not going to forget the others since France has a very complete attacking pattern."
Wednesday represents a date with destiny, and Martinez plans to attend with the same mantra that once helped him and his players to numerous against-the-odds wins for Wigan in the Premier League: "No fear."
As he puts it, that is the key to success: "This group of players needs to play without fear to keep all of its options open. It's like a voyage to the moon: We need to face it full of illusions."