Martinez has an edge to prove Souness wrong
WHEN Graeme Souness was in Dublin the other day for the launch of Virgin Media Television (nee TV3), he was asked what he thought of Belgium as World Cup contenders under Roberto Martinez. At the mention of the latter, Souness gestured with his hands theatrically, as if mimicking Martinez on the touchline. When it was pointed out that Thierry Henry was also on the coaching ticket, Souness raised an eyebrow and shrugged. Reading between the lines, Souness appeared to suggest he was unlikely to thrive as a player under Martinez (below) and Henry. As a TV pundit and newspaper columnist, the Scot is a man of conviction and no-nonsense. But was he not being a bit harsh on Roberto and Co? Maybe it’s a Belgian thing. As a nation, they tend to be underestimated and unnoticed. It’s not that long ago where folk in pubs would stare into their drinks in silence when asked to name three famous Belgians. Apart from Hercule Poirot, Herge (creator of Tintin) and Eddy Merckyx, there weren’t too many. From an Irish football perspective, there will always be Belgian names which send a shudder down the spine. In the 1982 World Cup qualifiers, they defeated Ireland 1-0 in a crucial qualifier in Brussels with a grand act of sporting larceny that made Henry’s handball in Paris seem innocent in comparison. Watching on TV, it seemed clear something was rotten that night. Ireland had a perfectly good goal by Frank Stapleton disallowed and many 50-50 decisions went against Eoin Hand’s team. Deep into the second half, Eric Gerets did a Swan Lake impression and won a free from which Jan Ceulemans headed in the winner. It was a kick in the privates as that Irish team richly deserved a shot at the World Cup finals, which a draw that night would have secured. In the ’82 finals, Belgium made it to the second stage and four years later, they reached the semi-finals, which remains their international high-point, so far. Could they go further in Russia? A part of me hopes they do. For all the Belgians are daft about cycling, football isn’t far behind in the national conscious. While the ‘Red Devils’ have never won a major tournament, they travelled to Uruguay in 1930 when the World Cup began, and they’ve contested 13 finals out of 21. On Friday, Belgium play Brazil in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Kazan. Most observers don’t give them a prayer, Souness among them, you’d suspect. Even in the wake of their thrilling 3-2 win over Japan on Monday night, critics were highlighting Belgium’s on-field crankiness, and Kevin De Bruyne’s lack of influence. But they carry a threat that will worry Brazil – they have goals in their locker. In their four games so far, they’ve scored 12 times, with eight different scorers. One of them, Marouane Fellaini, continues to put himself about with muscular effectiveness in opposition penalty areas. Crucially, they also are prepared to gamble. Against Japan, they launched that thrilling counter-attack in the final moments of stoppage time, capped by Nacer Chadli’s goal. Would anyone else how have shown that courage? Most likely, they’d have shut up shop and taken an extra half hour. But that is not the Martinez way. Expect plenty of touchline gestures again and, at the final whistle, he may have cause to celebrate again.