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Belgium’s Red Devils coach Roberto Martínez says leadership is the same in football as it is in business

21:29 05/06/2021

When Roberto Martínez left the family home in Catalonia at 16 to pursue his passion for football, it was the beginning of a journey that’s seen him follow his instinct to embrace a challenge at every twist in the road.

After a five-year spell at his first club, Real Zaragoza, a move to English team Wigan Athletic sparked a 21-year career as a player and manager in the UK that also took him to Scottish club Motherwell, Swansea City in south Wales, and English sides Chester City, Walsall and Everton.

Despite being concerned he was too young at 43 to take on the role of an international team coach, in 2016 he took the plunge as manager of Belgium’s men’s national team, the Red Devils, after being “charmed”, he says, by their South American-style sense of pride and spirit. Ahead of the European Championship this summer – postponed in 2020 due to Covid-19 – he’s hoping he and the team can recreate the jubilant scenes from summer 2018 in the Grand Place, when Belgium delighted fans with their best ever World Cup result.

In conversation with ING’s Dave Deruytter, the Spaniard talks team-building, adapting to change and why it doesn’t pay to plan too far ahead.

How did Belgium become part of your story?

My career has been full of curiosity. I always wanted to play football so when I was 16, I left my family, my comfort, to drive two hours away to play for Real Zaragoza. The next step was a two-hour flight away, when I moved to Wigan. I spent 21 years in Scotland, Wales and England. I became a coach at a very young age (33) when I became manager of Swansea City. Then I managed in the Premier League with Wigan Athletic – and we won the FA Cup – before moving to Everton for another three intense and fantastic years. And that took me into a position where, somehow, I became an international coach. I thought I was too young, but the reality is I was charmed by what Belgium are. I’ve found out first-hand how special the Red Devils team can be, and the attraction of working with this generation made me rethink. I’ve been here four years and am enjoying every day

Was this job part of the plan?

No, I don’t plan my life in that way. I learned as a young person that you need to have a clear idea of enjoying today and not going to bed looking back and having regrets. For that reason, I never plan too far ahead, because then you put your aims too low and you overachieve too easily, or you put your aims so high that you never reach them. I never expected to go to England, to become a coach or player, and I never expected to come to Brussels.

What charmed you about the Red Devils?

I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to be involved in a World Cup. When I was a manager I had the opportunity of working in a World Cup as a TV pundit. I wanted to understand international football and also the life of a journalist. I did it in 2010 and 2014, when Belgium were outstanding. I understood that South American teams play with pride – to feel that their career made sense, to make their family proud. I couldn’t see that in Europe, and that worried me when I came to Belgium. I was so wrong.

These players leave home very early, they’ve had to work really hard, they learn two or three languages, which makes you very open-minded. I realised we’ve got this South American pride in Belgium, and that captivates you. The day we were celebrating in the Grand Place [after the 2018 World Cup], that will never leave me. I saw young kids looking up with this face of believing they could achieve anything in life, and that’s what the Red Devils do to the fans. It’s just a shared joy.

You lived in very diverse parts of the UK. How did you handle it?

When I arrived in Wigan I thought I could speak English, then realised I couldn’t understand the north-west accent! There were three Spanish players at the club [nicknamed The Three Amigos]… after training we’d go home, have our lunch and siesta, then go to the town centre, when at 5pm everything was closed. It was such a contrasting way of life, we couldn’t find good coffee anywhere, we couldn’t find the foods we were used to. That was a tough time, but we were so into it, I was prepared to do anything. Yes, I could write a book of British culture through my journey! I encourage anyone to travel, get out of their comfort zone, never to say no, and find out for yourself.

How was the transition to club and then international management?

My case was quite unique. I didn’t have time to think if it could work out or not. I was playing for Chester on a Friday, and on the Saturday I was manager of Swansea City. I followed my instincts. When I look back it was fantastic. I rang my wife – she’s Scottish, they are always prepared for whatever comes! – and said, “I think tomorrow we need to go to Swansea”. Well, she packed up the house and we went.

By travelling from a young age, I realise I was preparing myself in an unconscious way for the transition. When you travel, you quickly identify what you like and don’t like, and the different opportunities you have. When you’re always in your comfort zone you only know one way.

Going from club to international is completely different. At a club level everything is 100 miles an hour, everything is about tomorrow, how you can affect the next result. At international level you’ve got five moments in 12 months and it’s all about looking back, reassessing, getting the right partnerships, identifying how you can create a team and managing players from a distance. When you’re together it’s more intense because the whole nation kicks the ball with you. It’s a very fulfilling process.

What are your top tips for team leadership?

It’s the same as in business: getting a group of brains thinking in the same way to achieve the same goal. First, you need to understand why each individual is there. The motivations could be very different, but they are all valuable. I don’t believe in sayings like “there is no ‘I’ in team”. You need to satisfy the individual first, then create a team based on fulfilled individuals.

Second, everyone in our group needs to have real clarity in their role. Sometimes as leaders we make the decision but don’t ask if people are happy with that role and responsibility, or if they can do it.

And the final one is constant improvement. You can never be in a high-performance group if you don’t improve what you did yesterday. It could be at every level, it could be minimal. Being able to arrive earlier, having better communication… it doesn’t always need to be measured with the end product of your performance.

Does it matter what the players do off the pitch?

I always feel that I manage the player on match days and when we’re on the training ground; but in the bigger space that you have in between, you manage the human being. And that is all about values and sharing experiences and how life should be lived to get the best out of their career. Nothing makes sense if he’s becoming a footballer at all costs, without being aware of what he represents.

It is becoming more important that young players get educated before they arrive in such a difficult world. There are many stories of players doing the wrong thing. But the culture we have means good stories are not attractive. I can guarantee we have probably 90% of good stories in a dressing room and 10% that, unfortunately, are not that good. What we can change is to put more emphasis on the young players being prepared to become good people before they become good players, and it should be something that stays with them until after they retire. 

What are your predictions for this year’s (postponed) Euros?

I could give you my prediction from my heart – that’s an easy one! I’d love to see how we can go back to the Grand Place. I think this generation deserves to be very close to silverware at international level. But I can guarantee that I’m not very good at predictions.

I’m fortunate to be in the middle of the team and see how excited they are. We’re going to give everything we’ve got. It’s not just the players or the staff, it’s the whole nation that’s going to give everything. And we need to push each other to face a difficult tournament because we’re going to be travelling in the first three games when the other nations at the same level will probably not. Every aspect that we can control will be done; we’ll be ready to aspire as high as we can.

How do you spend your free time?

That’s an interesting question because I don’t feel I work, so I don’t feel I need free time. I’ve got a big advantage, which is that my passion is my job. If I tell you what I do in free time you wouldn’t believe me – I watch football. I enjoy filling the time that I don’t have to physically be somewhere, with my family. For me that is treasured. But you can never switch off in our job.

When it was just my wife and me, we would just find a restaurant and enjoy a bit of food. That was the quality time that we’d spend together. When the kids arrived, rightly so, it turned upside down! We’ve got two girls, they are very sporty and they play instruments. So we follow along, and we really enjoy it. Probably our favourite activity is being outside without anything specific to do, when we can just talk and share ideas.

How do you feel about Belgium and what’s your advice for newcomers?

Belgium is such a rich nation in influences and cultures. I have found it very welcoming, full of understanding and respect and at the same time challenging, because there are many different ways of seeing the reality. I enjoy the proximity, being able to experience the coast, the history and the food. I thought we ate well in Spain but the cuisine in Belgium is on a different level.

From my own experience I think [when you arrive] you need to find what’s important in your family, what needs to be covered in your day-to-day – in our case, that our daughter would have a good school – and then build it from there. Sometimes we start building life from the roof, but really all that matters is the essentials.

This article first appeared in the Expat Time magazine, spring 2020. Photos: Bart Dewaele

Written by Paula Dear