Obafemi Martins’ blinding pace and predatory instincts took him, at a young age, from rough streets of Lagos, Nigeria to the biggest stages of world football. Now approaching 30, he’s embarked on a new challenge in America with Seattle Sounders.
The livewire Nigerian ace talks to FIFA.com about being discovered in a street game with friends, the fast road to stardom and his position in the Super Eagles pecking order. He also touches on the origins of his famous somersault goal celebrations, and how he’s had to change his game to remain relevant and productive.
FIFA.com: Your second season in Major League Soccer is going a lot better than your first, with your goals and assists having led the Sounders to the top of the table. What’s been the difference?
Obafemi Martins: Last year I joined the team after playing more than half a season in the Spanish top-flight with Levante. I had no rest. I was too tight. I went from one season to another without a break. So I wasn’t able show what I could do. But this year I had a proper pre-season camp. I got settled and healthy, and it’s showing.
You’ve also carved out quite a partnership with USA icon Clint Dempsey. You have 21 goals and 14 assists between you this term.
Dempsey’s a serious player. We connect on the pitch. If I get the ball, he knows I’ll give him the right pass. I know the same, too, when he gets it. It’s not an easy thing to create a strong understanding in attack so quickly, but we are on the same page. The man knows the game and I respect that.
How would you say the still-young MLS measures up to some of the big leagues you’ve played in, like the Premier League, the German Bundesliga and Serie A?
When you talk about those leagues in Europe, you’re talking about deep, long history. They have all the tradition that comes with years and years. So you can’t just compare a league like MLS to those leagues. It’s not fair.
What would you say about the American league’s status then?
It’s growing fast, maybe faster than any other league in the world. More teams are coming in all the time and players, friends of mine from Europe, want to come here now. You can see it getting better every year. And the fans in Seattle, they are some of the best I’ve ever seen.
You scored the winner in a League Cup final for Birmingham City, played at a World Cup, won Serie A with Inter Milan. Can you single out a highlight of your career?
It’s a tough question to answer. I’m always hunting for trophies and trying to get better. I have had so many sweet moments. I have a sweet moment, a sweet memory, with all of the teams I’ve played for. Newcastle was a great time for me and in Spain and Germany with Wolfsburg was also special, but my career is a story that’s still going on. When I finish playing and sit down with my grandkids, I can tell them a story that will have a lot of high-points, not just one.
You’ve been called to play for Nigeria only twice in the last three years. Do you think, considering your current form, a recall might be in order, maybe for next year’s African Cup of Nations?
I’m here and I’m Nigerian, so we’ll see if I get picked. I have no control over it. Every coach has his favourites. All I can say is that I’m playing good football in Seattle and I’m happy doing it. If I’m in the Nigeria team, great, and if I’m not, I wish them all the best. I always want Nigeria to do well.
When you look around the world you always find Nigerians playing. I don’t think I can name a league where there aren’t at least a few Nigerians. Why is this?
We don’t have the best domestic league system in Nigeria, but we do have some of the best players - too many talented players [laughs]. Go to Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy, wherever, and you’ll find Nigerians playing there. They might not be the big stars, but they’re out there showing what Nigerian football is all about. Nigerians love to play football and it’s not like here in the States where there’s American football, baseball, basketball. All we have is football in Nigeria. And we love it.
You started out on the streets of Lagos, playing for the love of the game. How did you get all the way to Europe’s biggest stages?
I started out just playing for fun, with my friends. I was spotted by a man named Churchill Oliseh, the older brother of Nigeria captain Sunday Oliseh. I played in his team and he was a good man. He helped me out with food and support, because it wasn’t a professional situation at that time. And before I could blink, he told me I could go to Italy for trials. It seemed unreal.
Were you nervous?
I was nervous. But my parents said, ‘Why not give it a go?' Churchill looked at me and asked, ‘Do you want to play football or do you want to go to school?’ I wanted to play football, so off we went. I passed the trials and signed with a third division side, AC Reggiana. I did well with the youth team, made the first team and then was signed by Inter Milan – all in my first season! It happened so quickly I was dizzy, but I felt blessed.
Everyone knows about Obafemi Martins’ pace. Your speed on the pitch is legendary. But you’re approaching 30 now, a normal age for a player to slow down. Have you had to change your game?
I’ve slowed down some and so I have to adapt the way I play. It’s fine, though, because I like to play with the ball, to have it at my feet. When it’s time to run and get up the pitch fast, I can still do that too, though [laughs].
We all know about your achievements as a footballer, but you’re quite the acrobat too. Tell us about the famous springing flips you do after scoring. When did you start that?
Ah, since I was really young, back when I was 11 or 12 in Lagos. There was a sawdust pitch in the neighbourhood and we saw guys practicing tumbling, flipping like gymnasts. My friends and I thought it was cool so we started practicing it too. Our acrobatics were getting good at the same time we were getting better at football too. One of my friends said, ‘You should put the two together and do some flips when you score; it would be awesome.’ So that’s just what I did.
Did you ever think about a more conventional goal celebration?
When I started to flip as a professional in Europe, people couldn’t believe it. They never saw anything like it. When I started in Italy, I scored my first goal and flipped like crazy. The fans couldn’t get enough of it. They loved it so much they started talking more about my flips than the goals!