MOSCOW — Two wins from becoming the first foreign coach to win a World Cup, Roberto Martinez always will be known as Frankie to his former boss.
“He reminded me of those wonderful what I call zoot-suited American vocalists, like Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, Frankie Valli,” Everton chairman Bill Kenwright said. “And I christened him Frankie from the first day I met him.”
Martinez had more hair then. Now balding, the Spaniard has led Belgium to a World Cup semifinal against France today, three days before his 45th birthday. All 20 previous World Cup-winning coaches were born in the nation they led to the title.
“He’s a genius tactically,” said American goalkeeper Tim Howard, who spent three seasons with Martinez at Everton. “He always finds a weakness in the opponent.”
Belgium beat five-time champion Brazil 2-1 in the quarterfinals when Martinez switched to a new formation — a 4-3-3 with star forward Romelu Lukaku on the right wing. If Belgium gets past the French, The Red Devils would play England or Croatia on Sunday with the chance to win their first World Cup title.
Englishman George Raynor’s Sweden team advanced to the 1958 final at home but lost to Brazil, and Ernst Happel of Austria led the Netherlands team to the 1978 final, an extra-time defeat to host Argentina. Martinez hopes to succeed where they failed and employed a two-year process to ensure “this is a team, this is not a group of individuals.”
“There’s more feeling of trust in each other,” midfielder Kevin De Bryune said.
Martinez is familiar in the U.S. from his work for ESPN as an analyst at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, the last two European Championships and the 2013 Confederations Cup. He insisted the network install a screen that showed the overhead tactical camera.
“Roberto only wanted to watch that,” said Amy Rosenfeld, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for soccer. “We always had a setup where everybody else could see the main feed, and Roberto had a separate monitor where he could just watch the entire game from his high end zone. That’s how he could consume the match, interpret the match, look at shape, look at formation, look at vulnerabilities, passing lanes.”
Martinez impressed colleagues with his focus, especially after the Seine flooded ESPN’s set in Paris two years ago.
“Rats that I think were living in the Jurassic era emerged, and we could not get rid of them. These things could have been in the fourth race at Belmont — these were enormous rats,” Rosenfeld said. “The rats are running past Roberto — he doesn’t miss a beat. He’s doing his analysis, one take usually, it may have even been live. There was a rat chewing on Roberto’s laces.”
In Britain, he remains somewhat of a mystery, at least his name. While he pronounces it Mar-TEE-nez, English media often stress the first syllable and say MAR-tin-ez.
He grew up in the Catalonia city of Balaguer and left the youth system of his hometown club at 16 to join Zaragoza. He played for a series of small clubs and became known for his move to third-tier Wigan for the 1995-96 season along with Jesus Seba and Isidro Diaz, a trio quickly dubbed the “Three Amigos.”
He quit as a player at 33 when Swansea offered the manager’s job in February 2007, and in his first full season earned the club a promotion that put it back in the second tier for the first time since 1983-84. Martinez moved up to the Premier League with Wigan in June 2009 and after a bizarre 2012-13 season, when Wigan was relegated while winning its first FA Cup, he switched to more prestigious and ambitious Everton, where he would coach Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini, a pair that has combined for five of Belgium’s 14 World Cup goals.
Martinez wasn’t thought of as a tactician at the club level. He was fired with one match left in his third season at Everton following fan protests as the Toffees headed to their second straight 11th-place finish. The Royal Belgian Football Association, which fired Marc Wilmots after a 3-1 loss to Wales in the 2016 Euro quarterfinals, hired him three months later.
Martinez brought in former star Thierry Henry of France as an assistant, wanting his experience as a World Cup and European champion. Players were booed in Martinez’s first match, a 2-0 loss to Spain, but the Red Devils are unbeaten in 24 matches since (19 wins). A month before the World Cup, he was rewarded with a new two-year contract running through the 2020 European Championship.
He speaks English and Spanish, looking casual at news conferences, sometimes with several days of stubble. His work rate is impressive. One hour after the 3-2 win over Japan in the round of 16, Martinez texted Kenwright that he already was planning tactics for Brazil. Martinez waits until three hours before kickoff to reveal his lineup to his players.
Kenwright praises Martinez for being “an extraordinarily good man” admired by club employees from top to bottom.
“He truly is, truly, truly, truly, 24-7. I don’t say that thinking, well, he’ll take an hour off on Sunday. He won’t. He takes no time off at all,” Kenwright said. “The World Cup this summer has not been about superstars, but has been about teams and particularly their coaches and their managers. And that’s why people like (Martinez) and Gareth Southgate stand out.”
Martinez has been married for nine years to the former Beth Thompson — they met when he was playing in Scotland — and they have a 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Luella. Coaching families always have to be prepared to move. Before the quarterfinal, Martinez was asked at a news conference whether he was interested in coaching Spain. He deflected.
“He can name whatever job he wants,” Howard said. “Maybe the U.S. soccer job?”
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