In a combative press conference performance reflecting the tensions of Belgium’s troubled World Cup campaign, Roberto Martínez accused the French media of dirty tricks and the Belgian press of seeking to divide their country before the must‑win match against Croatia.
Belgium, third at the last World Cup and second in the world rankings, must beat the 2018 finalists on Thursday to avoid a humiliating early exit from Qatar. Their preparations have been shrouded in acrimony. L’Equipe claimed Kevin De Bruyne and Jan Vertonghen clashed in the dressing room after Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Morocco, with the veteran defender taking exception to the Manchester City playmaker’s claim in the Guardian that Belgium are too old to win the World Cup.
Eden Hazard was reportedly also involved in the incident, and Romelu Lukaku stepped in as peacemaker. “I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front,” Vertonghen allegedly said.
Timothy Castagne, the Belgium and Leicester full-back, said De Bruyne’s comments were discussed during a team meeting on Monday but denied they had contributed to two poor performances and that the meeting constituted crisis talks. Belgian media had reported the meeting in those terms, along with claims that several big-name players are not on speaking terms.
Thibaut Courtois, who will make his 100th appearance for Belgium on Thursday, described the stories as “invented lies” to destabilise the squad. However, the Real Madrid goalkeeper also claimed that if the identity of the dressing room mole is discovered “it’s his last day in the national team”.
Martínez continued with the siege mentality approach, accusing Belgian media of doubling down on “fake news” emerging from France. “We were not happy with the two performances,” said Belgium’s head coach. “Then you see the storm on the outside and realise that maybe we were listening too much to the outside noise before the tournament. Now we have some outlets in Belgium that are quite happy to jump on fake news. That’s quite astonishing.
“A World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world, and you could see maybe a country like France did a very good job with a story that became the main topic of conversation in Belgium. It showed there is maybe more desire to find negative news around this team than to really get this nation together and support this team and enjoy the talent of the best generation we have ever had in Belgium football.
“That was probably a lesson for all of us – that we are here on our own and we are here to fight for what we believe is the way we want to play, and hopefully the fans – the real fans – of the Red Devils can enjoy the process.”
Martínez believes the bust-up story will fuel Belgium’s motivation against Croatia, who require a point to progress to the last 16. “Whoever has done it has scored a great own goal for Belgium,” he said. “If I could weaken opponents as a journalist I would do that. Whoever has done it is a genius.”
Castagne gave a brutally honest assessment of their performances at the World Cup, admitting they played with fear against Canada and Morocco and had lost confidence. “It’s true we let the criticism affect us to a certain extent. Maybe we heard people saying we weren’t a golden generation and we started asking questions and doubting ourselves. Perhaps lost some of the confidence we had. That’s why the meeting was important.”
The defender described Monday’s meeting as “getting things off our chest” and not a slanging match. De Bruyne’s ageing comments were on the agenda. Castagne said: “We had a meeting to thrash these issues out. I don’t think Kevin meant anything bad by what he said.
“Italy won the Euros last year with [Leonardo] Bonucci and [Giorgio] Chiellini in defence, so age is not always a factor. I don’t think we should target one or two who maybe are not playing to the best of their ability. If we look in the mirror we all know we could have played better. I don’t think age is a factor and I don’t think it’s because of what Kevin said that we played badly. We’ve sorted out those issues and everything is fine now within the camp.”
Croatia’s head coach, Zlatko Dalic, said his team would not play for the draw they need and expect to meet a side that lives up to its lofty reputation, complete with Lukaku starting his first game of the tournament.
“Belgium are a great team and in truth I would not have chosen this to be our last, decisive game of the group,” Dalic said. “The game will not be fought by media stories or rumours. We will be playing a top team with phenomenal players. You don’t become a bad team overnight. It will be more difficult than Morocco and Canada. We respect Morocco and Canada but Belgium are a class above them.”