Roberto Martínez denied Belgium had been distracted by Kevin De Bruyne’s claim they are too old to win the World Cup but conceded his team played with fear in their surprise defeat by Morocco.
In a revealing interview with the Guardian published on Saturday, the Belgium playmaker said the team ranked second in the world had “no chance” of winning the World Cup because “we’re too old”.
De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and company were poor for a second successive game in Qatar, where late goals from Romain Saïss and substitute Zakaria Aboukhlal brought Morocco only their third victory at a World Cup.
“This is the first time I’ve heard those comments,” said Martínez, the Belgium head coach. “At a World Cup players have to speak to the media every day, 90% of it will be positive but there are always one or two lines that don’t fit into the context.
“We are all professionals and we know how to perform. A player is allowed to air their view. We’ve been together for six years now and comments won’t help us to win. Maybe it was a double-bluff. It’s what happens behind the scenes that matters.”
The Manchester City midfielder was again subdued, and Martínez was asked why Belgium had not seen the best of De Bruyne at this World Cup. “We haven’t seen the best of Belgium yet,” he replied. “We are not at our best. It’s not just Kevin, it’s the whole team. We didn’t play with freedom. Football is a team sport and when it works together the individual can reach a higher level.”
Martínez claimed Belgium’s biggest problem was the weight of expectation on his players and their lack of enjoyment on the pitch as a consequence.
“I don’t see us enjoying our football or playing with joy,” he said. “We don’t play with joy and maybe that’s because of the weight we are carrying on our shoulders. We’ve played the last two games like we have something to lose.
“It’s not a lack of quality or the technical aspect. We were better on the ball than against Canada but the link-up and the last pass was missing. We played with a fear of losing. I don’t see the enjoyment we usually play with and that’s something we need to work on.
“We haven’t anything to lose any more. We will play to win against Croatia and that will be the start of us at this World Cup.”