Obafemi Martins is no stranger to the gruelling demands of the lengthy European football season. But the past 12 months have likely been the Nigeria striker’s most demanding spell as a professional yet, and there is still much more to come. Martins began the 2012/13 La Liga campaign with Levante, featuring 21 times and scoring seven times along the way.
And then in March, Major League Soccer club Seattle Sounders signed the striker, sending him to the Pacific Northwest where the American top flight league was just underway, meaning Martins would be playing another eight months – totalling 16 consecutive months – of football.
Now well into the MLS season and with the dust finally settled since his move to Sounders earlier in the calendar, FIFA.com was able to speak exclusively with Seattle’s No9 to learn how he is finding life in America, handling the strenuous workload in a tough league and the origins of his famous backflip goal celebration.
Martins marches on
When Martins signed with Sounders in March, he picked up more frequent flier miles than just a one-way trip from Spain to Seattle. Beginning Friday 15 March, Martins flew from Madrid to Seattle to make his debut for Sounders just a day later.
He then boarded a plane on Sunday morning to meet up with the national team for their FIFA World Cup™ qualifier against Kenya. Shortly thereafter, Martins was back in Seattle training with his new team-mates for the first time.
Speaking about the frenetic pace of his introduction to Major League Soccer, Martins said with a calm smile: “It’s been tough. Playing in Levante, and then coming straight here to start playing in MLS, I’ve been playing in two leagues instead of resting. I have no choice but to play because the season is going on now but I am ready to go.”
When I came to Europe and I went to Italy, seeing Ronaldo - you know: Brazilian Ronaldo - playing, I was thinking ‘I want to play like him’.
And even if he was weary from the demanding schedule, his seven goals and three assists after 14 matches indicate Martins still has plenty of scoring prowess to offer, despite the potentially heavy legs. “I’m trying to adapt,” Martins said. “It’s been difficult, but I’ve been able to score some goals already. It’s not easy to play here in MLS, though. They play with intensity and they run a lot.”
An experienced veteran of Europe’s top competitions, Martins found similarities between America’s top flight and his time at Newcastle United in the English Premier League. “It’s a bit like England. The competition in MLS is strong and they’re physical as well. And the league is getting much better, and every team out there wants to win, so we have to be ready,” Martins added.
Seattle’s strong support
Seattle seem to be enjoying having Martins’ in a green shirt, and he was quick to praise the support he’s received since arriving in Seattle, including a group of supporters who were on hand to greet the new recruit the day before he made his debut. “When I first came to Seattle I couldn’t believe the support they had,” Martins said enthusiastically. “They have a lot of fans. I’d rate Seattle’s fans at 99 per cent: They’re some of the best supporters I’ve had since I’ve been playing.”
As the conversation shifted to his expectations for both club and country, Martins paused before responding and answered with a clear focus: “We want to win the trophy. That’s why it’s been difficult, winning a couple of games and then losing again. That’s what we’re waiting for, the trophy.
“We want to win. This is a big competition. (Our opponents) want to win; we want to win, so it’s going to be tough. We’ll see what will happen. It’s fun. It’s a fun game and a fun league.”
Until Martins made his way from playing in the streets of Lagos to Inter Milan – by way of Serie C side Reggiana – he was unaware of the footballing greats that he would one day play alongside. “I remember when I was a child in Nigeria, when I used to play in the street for fun I didn’t know any players, but when I came to Europe and I went to Italy, seeing Ronaldo - you know: Brazilian Ronaldo - playing, I was thinking ‘I want to play like him’.”
Like many great goalscorers, Martins has a trademark celebration that supporters hope to see every time he steps on the field. The origins of Martins’ now famous backflips date back to the same streets where he learned to play the game: “I learned to do the backflip in Nigeria because I was just doing it for fun, but all of a sudden I became really good at it.
"I was doing it with friends, and they told me, ‘Now you’re playing soccer. Why can’t you simply score goals and do the flip?’ They said, ‘Try it. It’s going to be fun. I think people will really love it.’ All of a sudden I started doing it, and now people love it.”
And as Sounders continue to push for a play-off spot in the Western Conference, Seattle supporters will be looking for as many of Martins’ famous backflips as possible.