For Belgium’s golden generation their Friday night in Kazan was the moment they finally proved there was nothing false about their standard. This was when they put behind them the woeful memory of their last appearance in a championship quarter-final, when they were eviscerated at Euro 2016 by Wales. Beating Brazil to advance to a World Cup semi-final against France was confirmation that the glorious flowering of talent in their game is finally finding purpose.
But if it was vindication for Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and the magnificent beanpole at the heart of their endeavour, Marouane Fellaini, for the reputation of their coach it was something closer to redemption. In England we recall Roberto Martinez in his shambolic last few weeks at Everton, when chaos ruled and it appeared he could not organise his way out of a damp paper bag. On Merseyside he looked a man adrift and clueless, remembered more for the empty blue-sky positivity of his reaction to defeat than the construction of his defence.
And yet here he was, the very same Bobby Brownshoes, the man reckoned to have an allergy to planning and organisation, brilliantly out-witting his Brazilian counterpart Tite, thought by many, at least before this meeting, to be the sharpest tactician in the tournament.
“When you play you have to get a tactical advantage,” said Martinez, basking in the warm glow of taking his team to the last four. “It would be very easy to think you turn up and win a football game, but you cannot do that especially against Brazil. We had to be brave tactically, to change things tactically in a World Cup. The players have to believe.”
‘Very easy to think you turn up and win a football game’: for many an Evertonian, that roughly sums up the level of Martinez’s management approach at Goodison. But in Kazan, he showed flexibility and bravery, changing his system perfectly to counteract the Brazilian threat.
“We had a good plan to do,” explained the Belgian defender Toby Alderweireld. “We trained a couple of days on it. We knew what we had to do. That’s one thing. The second thing is to actually do it, to stick with it. Especially in the first half we did it. The second half it was just defend, defend. Then it is all about heart and defending well.”
Defending well: two words rarely associated with Martinez regimes in the past. But here Belgium were exemplary, closing down all the avenues Brazil expected to utilise, then hitting back with rapier counter-attacking, before defending as if their life depended upon it.
And the change of approach seemed to have occurred at half-time against Japan in the last-16 tie. The first half of that match would have been very familiar for Everton supporters: a Martinez side heavy on talent and light on direction being taken to the cleaners. But he changed things in the interval, bringing on Fellaini, who led the spirited comeback. Against Brazil, Fellaini (and the other scoring substitute Nacer Chadli) started. The two of them worked effectively to close down the service to Brazil’s creative duo Philippe Coutinho and Neymar. And when they snatched the ball off the pair, they worked it quickly to the fizzing front three of Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku. Now France await.
“I think we can be confident,” said Alderweireld. “Eden, Romulu, Kevin behind them, those three can hurt any team. But they are a brilliant team. They have shown in one or two of their performances what they can do. Very tough opponents. Like against Brazil we will have to be at our best to beat them.”
For the golden generation the tests keep getting bigger. And for their coach there will be a new set of problems to overcome. The good news for Martinez is that his team appear to be right behind him, ready to put his planning into action.
“It is huge for us,” said their captain Vincent Kompany of the tie in St Petersburg. “It is not the end. We have got enough players in this team who really want to go to the very end.”