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 on Tuesday night, 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. He prepares his teams to break down the opponent. No game is the same — he changes tactics every game.”
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, it would play England or Croatia on Sunday with the chance to win its 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 by employing 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.”
He speaks English and Spanish, looking casual at news conferences, sometimes with several days of stubble. His workrate 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.
■France vs. Belgium, 2 p.m. (Fox)
■Croatia vs. England, 2 p.m. (Fox)
■10 a.m. Saturday (Fox)
■11 a.m. Sunday, (Fox)