When that inevitable question arrived, the one that had been put previously to Frank de Boer, Fernando Santos, Didier Deschamps and often accompanies a big-name exit from the Euros, Roberto Martínez went into evasive mode. Belgium’s golden generation may have reached the end in Munich on Friday but their head coach was equivocal on whether he would follow suit.
“This is a moment when it is very difficult to speak about anything else than the defeat and we are out of the Euros,” a crestfallen Martínez said after Belgium’s high-calibre but painful quarter-final loss to Italy. “It is still too raw and I don’t want to say anything that could be emotional. Now is time to analyse and assess but at the moment the feelings are of disappointment and sadness. That is what is in my head now.”
Such ambiguous management speak is often the prelude to a departure – De Boer said almost exactly the same thing 48 hours before he and the Netherlands parted company – and after five years in charge, another tournament near-miss and a generational rebuild required, Martínez’s words did not discourage the belief he and Belgium could be next. The 47-year-old’s stock is high having kept the Red Devils at the top of the world rankings for the past three years, the smallest-populated country to do so, although the failure of a golden crop of players to deliver a trophy on his watch will cause rancour for some time.
A return to the Premier League has been mooted for the former Everton and Wigan manager, who still lives in England’s north-west. He was linked with Barcelona before they turned to and then persisted with Ronald Koeman, his successor at Goodison Park, and the managerial market is not exactly brimming with choice as this summer’s moves across Europe have shown. Yet Martínez is tied closer to Belgium, its Football Association and its development programmes than most of his international peers are to their teams. A fresh start may not be so tempting once the hurt of defeat has subsided.
Martínez is the technical director of the Belgian FA as well as national team head coach. He originally envisaged Euro 2020 as the end point for his international project – when it was being played in 2020 – only to extend his contract until the 2022 World Cup when the European Championship was delayed. He has played an integral part in youth development in Belgium and, as he did in England, led calls for under-21 teams to play in professional leagues as a way to retain the country’s best talent for longer. Belgium’s upheaval would be more seismic than anticipated should Martínez exit along with a procession of senior players who may not have a World Cup in them in 16 months’ time.
Thomas Vermaelen is 35, Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens 34, and Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld 32. The 30-year-olds Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard clearly have time and talent on their side but they, and Witsel, came into the tournament off the back of serious injuries and were hindered by them. The Real Madrid forward is increasingly unable to escape injury and one can imagine the reaction at Manchester City to De Bruyne’s admission he played the game against Italy with torn ankle ligaments.
“For me personally it has been four or five weird weeks,” said De Bruyne, who suffered an acute fracture of the nose and an orbital fracture to his left eye socket in the Champions League final defeat by Chelsea. “But I especially want to thank the medical staff. It was a miracle that I played [against Italy] because there was definitely damage to my ankle. A tear in my ligaments. But I felt responsibility to play for my country. Too bad I couldn’t do more.”
Martínez is convinced another talented crop is emerging for Belgium and Jérémy Doku’s display against Roberto Mancini’s outstanding side supported that view. The 19-year-old, who left Anderlecht for Rennes last year, was a constant menace for a team overly reliant on individual flashes from Romelu Lukaku and De Bruyne. “He looked like a player with incredible energy, with quality in one v ones, and he never looked like a young player in the game,” Martínez reflected. “The occasion didn’t get to him at all. Only players with exceptional quality can do what’s done but we were convinced he could do it.”
Ultimately, however, there was only sadness and regret for Belgium in Munich. Youthful promise can wait. Martínez said: “Football can be cruel at times but it was two teams with 14 straight wins in the Euros and the record had to break somewhere. The margins were small and they went against us. We have to move on and grow from this experience.” Whether they grow together or start anew is still to be answered.