Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne talks to the media during Belgium’s official press conference on the eve of the semifinal match between France and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the St. Petersburg Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, July 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner) Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne talks to the media during Belgium’s official press conference on the eve of the semifinal match between France and Belgium at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the St. Petersburg Stadium in St. Petersburg, Russia, Monday, July 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Togetherness has Belgium, Martinez a step away from World Cup history

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Nothing conveys Roberto Martinez’s obsession with his job better than the way he outfitted his Liverpool, England, home while he was coaching at Everton.

Flat-screen TVs hung from the walls on opposite sides of the living room and in the middle stood a sofa, its seats pointing in different directions. Martinez would sit on one side, facing a TV showing soccer games in an seemingly endless loop, and his Scottish-born wife, Beth, would face the other way, watching anything but soccer.

“But we are sitting together. That is the main thing,” Martinez recounted. “It has saved my marriage.”

More recently Martinez’s focus on soccer and togetherness may have saved the Belgian national team, one he inherited two years ago after a series of underwhelming performances. On Tuesday that same team will meet France in a World Cup semifinal, a win away from going where no Belgian team has ever gone.

“This team has been playing together for seven, eight years,” midfielder Kevin de Bruyne said, explaining the transformation. “I think that he brought us together. He made us more confident in ourselves. There’s more a feeling of being together.”

And that has both the team and its coach closing in on World Cup milestones. For Belgium, which washed out in the quarterfinals of its last two major championships, a win Tuesday would take it to a World Cup final for the first time. For Martinez, a Spaniard, capturing the title with Belgium would make him the first foreign coach to win soccer’s biggest prize.

The previous 20 World Cup-winning coaches were born in the country they took to the crown.

Martinez, 44, wound up on the doorstep of history more by chance than design. He was the second-longest-tenured coach in the English Premier League when Everton fired him with one game left in the 2015-16 season, leaving Martinez crushed, if not totally surprised.

Two months later the firing proved providential, though, after Belgium crashed out of the European Championships, the second time in three years the team had come up short in a major tournament.

With Belgium’s aging “Golden Generation” in danger of fading into oblivion without a trophy, the country’s soccer federation dismissed coach Marc Wilmots — a legend who had made four World Cup teams as a player and led the team to another as manager — and replaced him with Martinez, who had never played or coached at the international level.

In England, Martinez was known as a deep thinker, an affable and engaging person who was unfailingly humble. Those traits made him the perfect manager to lead a talented but disparate group of players that had underachieved under previous coaches.

“This is a team. This is not a group of individuals,” Martinez said Monday, explaining the message he’s tried to drill into his players. “And that’s been a process.”

Belgium lost its first game under Martinez, a friendly with Spain. But it hasn’t lost since, taking a national record 24-game unbeaten streak into Tuesday’s match.

“I have a lot of respect for him. He took on this national squad,” French coach Didier Deschamps said Monday. “He, of course, benefits from Wilmots’ work. (But) he put his own mark on the team.”

Under Martinez Belgium adopted a more Spanish style, favoring possession, playing with three defenders at the back, pushing his wingers forward and leaning heavily on a deep midfield led by De Bruyne. And that formula has worked — Belgium leads the World Cup with 14 goals, getting scores from nine different players.

“Deeply optimistic. Almost too positive,” Roger Bennett, one half of the soccer punditry duo “Men in Blazers” and someone who knows Martinez well, said of his friend. “A manager who committed to football played on the front foot.

Martinez’s best work has arguably come off the field, though, where his mantra has been “simplicity and basics.” So to avoid the potential for off-field distractions, he left physical midfielder Radja Nainggolan off the roster for Russia.

A fan favorite under Wilmots, Nainggolan has been a discipline problem under Martinez.

To help his players deal with the pressure of expectations, he hired Thierry Henry, an unflappable world and European champion with France, as an assistant coach.

“As Belgium, we cannot follow a generation that has won a World Cup,” Martinez said. “Thierry Henry brings that (experience).”

Now he not only has his players believing they can succeed, he has the country believing it too. When the coach stood up to leave his post-game press conference following a quarterfinal win over Brazil, the Belgian journalists in the room broke into applause. They may be cheering again Tuesday.

“The Belgium team is the most complete team in the tournament,” French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris said. “The team can defend, it can attack, it can attack in the air. They have everything.

“It’s a great team. They have the right players in the right places.”

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