MOSCOW -- Things have changed for Roberto Martinez over the past couple of years. In the summer of 2016, he had just been sacked by Everton and spent the European Championships working as a pundit for ESPN. Now, he's in charge of Belgium at the World Cup. We're not saying managing a collection of the best players in the world is necessarily a better gig, but he does seem to be enjoying himself.
France 2016 was supposed to be the time when this group of uncommonly talented Belgian players went from dark horses to actual contenders, when they could -- and should, even -- have won their first major international honour since the 1920 Olympics. But alas, they were lead by Marc Wilmots, a coach who somehow managed to remove the joy and spirit from a side that featured Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne.
Wilmots was a manager who switched tactics and selection on a whim, who virtually never took the blame for defeats and whose relationship with his players appeared to be tricky at best. Case in point: Thibaut Courtois announced in March that he was suing Wilmots for defamation.
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Wilmots was contracted to still be in charge for this World Cup but the aching underachievement proved too much and he was sacked immediately after the defeat to Wales at Euro 2016. These players were about to enter their prime, and that prime could not be wasted.
Enter Martinez. It was, to say the least, a surprise appointment, not least because at the time the Belgian FA said they wanted someone who had "already achieved results in international football." Names like Louis van Gaal and Club Brugge manager Michel Preud'homme seemed more realistic, but in early August 2016, Martinez was announced as their man, with Thierry Henry as his assistant.
Martinez is a manager who divides opinion between those who think him one of the game's most modern and progressive thinkers, and others who believe he's just a man who talks a good game. He really does talk a good game: he's articulate, engaged and engaging, albeit with a strong whiff of the motivational speaker and self-help book philosopher.
Talk obviously isn't enough, but his spell in charge of Belgium has been undeniably successful so far, in terms of results at least. His first game was a friendly defeat to Spain in which he was booed, almost certainly more an expression of frustration from the stands rather than extreme reaction to a game with no meaning, but since then Belgium haven't lost a game. They dropped only two points in qualifying, which featured some ruthless routs of minnows and fellow contenders alike: they put 15 goals past Gibraltar over two games, beat Estonia 8-1 and perhaps most impressively, thumped Bosnia-Herzegovina 4-0.
The caveat is that results against those teams are all well and good but they haven't yet been tested in a competitive game by one of the elite. Even if they beat Japan in their last-16 clash in Rostov on Monday, that mark will not be fully erased.
There is also still a sense that Martinez has never quite been embraced. Perhaps it's because with the exception of a five-game spell under Dick Advocaat in 2009, he is the first non-Belgian to take the role since 1958. Perhaps it's because his tactics are questionable, a shoehorned 3-4-3 that was questioned by De Bruyne after a friendly draw with Mexico. Perhaps it's because he left the popular Radja Nainggolan out of his World Cup squad. Perhaps it's because the Belgian public have the same misgivings about him as his English sceptics.
It might also be because he doesn't communicate (in public at least) in French or Flemish, preferring English. If you listen to him, that choice isn't due to laziness or inability to download Duolingo; it's more to do with not picking at a thread that has caused problems before, namely a historical division between French and Flemish-speaking players in the squad.
"It allows me to speak the football language and be neutral," Martinez said this week. "I have no background or attachment to any of the diversity we have in Belgium. As a coach, I'm neutral so I can only make football decisions. It's the biggest advantage I have."
By his own admission, Martinez has taken a while to adapt to the international game.
"This has been the most enjoyable period we've had because it's been the longest time we've had with the players," he said. "At the club level, you can share the emotions with the players every day: you can win together, you can lose together. In international football, if you win a game you don't see each other for months. If you lose a game, you're desperate to share a clip with a player and you can't. You need to grow into that and accept it."
But Belgium hopes he's fully grown by now. By common consensus, this is the greatest generation of players the country has ever seen. The team that reached the 1986 semifinal had Enzo Schifo, Eric Gerets and Jan Ceulemans, but still not the depth of talent this group can boast.
Belgium is not a big country, population around 11.4 million. If they did go all the way, they would be the smallest nation to win the World Cup since Uruguay in 1950. Who knows when they will have a team this good again. This is their time; their squad is up there with the most talented in the competition and with many in the form of their careers. Argentina, Portugal and Germany are out, too. In short, they will never have a better chance.
And so, it falls to Martinez to reverse the trend of disappointing previous "golden generations," from England to Croatia to Portugal, who promised much but won little. The last two years have been preamble: the real stuff starts now.