MOSCOW (Reuters) - Eight goals in two victories prove Belgium are World Cup contenders but coach Roberto Martinez says breaking into the exclusive club of champions means winning mind games as much as matches on the pitch.
Before giving his squad a day off with their families after Saturday’s 5-2 Group G win over Tunisia, the Spaniard waved away talk of supplanting stuttering favourites like Germany or Brazil and acknowledged lapses in concentration and defensive frailties that will have to be tightened against England on Thursday.
But as important for Martinez, pressed whether Belgium are now a good bet for the trophy, was a need to build the players’ own expectations, balancing focus and self-confidence: “We’ve got used to it, try to work on it internally,” he said.
Only five countries have won in the past generation, he noted: “To be a favourite in a World Cup you need to have the know-how of winning a World Cup, or have a reference of a previous generation that has won the World Cup in modern times.”
Martinez, 44, who spent his own playing career in England’s lower divisions, has spoken before of self-doubt that held back France before they won the 1998 World Cup or Spain before the Euro 2008 triumph which paved the way for their 2010 World Cup success.
“(It) probably gives you an advantage psychologically if you’ve won it before or if you’ve got a direction from someone, a generation, that has won it before in your nation,” he said.
If Belgium are to emulate their French neighbours, they are looking for help from assistant coach Thierry Henry, France’s top scorer when they won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
“He offers us his winning mentality,” said midfielder Axel Witsel. “Titi is important. It’s how we can win the World Cup.”
With Italy absent, Germany, Brazil, Spain and France are the other modern past winners in Russia. But like historic champions Argentina (1986), England (1966) and Uruguay (1930 and 1950), they have all laboured compared to the flying Belgians.
For Romelu Lukaku, joint top scorer so far in Russia with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Henry is an inspiration. Recalling childhood poverty which he says drives him, Lukaku told Players Tribune magazine how his family could not afford satellite TV.
“We couldn’t even afford to watch Thierry Henry on ‘Match of the Day’,” he said. “Now I’m learning from him every day with the national team. I’m standing with the legend, in the flesh.”
If Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and the rest are to become Low Countries legends, they now have to focus to overcome stiffer opposition than Panama and Tunisia and avoid coming apart under pressure as they did in losing to Argentina and then modest Wales in their last World Cup and Euro quarter-finals.
“We’re not yet real favourites,” insisted Lukaku, who may get a rest against England after taking an ankle knock.
But back home, Belgians are expectant, yet also fearful of how future opponents will now respond: “The whole world will now see Belgium as favourites — a giant,” wrote commentator Stefan Keygaert in Het Laatste Nieuws. “That’s your own fault, boys.
“You shouldn’t have been this impressive.”
Reporting by Alastair Macdonald; @macdonaldrtr, editing by Pritha Sarkar