If it seems like the road Obafemi Martins took to join Sounders FC from Levante this March was a trying one, then you don’t know the story of Obafemi Martins.
The Spanish club held on to his rights for weeks while he sought a move to Seattle, but eventually accepted the contractual buyout and Martins has since been pivotal to Seattle’s success this season. However, those weeks of uncertainty about his future were far from the most difficult weeks he’s had in soccer.
The 28-year-old forward played in Italy, England, Germany, Russia and Spain before landing in MLS, but his journey from the streets of Nigeria to stardom at Inter Milan is the stuff of a Hollywood movie.
The story starts on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, where Martins earned his stripes in soccer not by mimicking players he saw on TV (he didn’t have one), but just by having a good time with a game that he loved.
“When I was 11 or 12, we always played for fun in the streets without any shoes and I really enjoyed it,” said Martins.
At age 14, he was spotted by the manager of a Nigerian second division club, FC Ebedei, and quickly joined their youth team. It was there that he developed his now-signature goal-scoring celebration, and he was doing plenty of backflips. During his one season there, scouts from Italy’s third-division Reggiana brought him in for a trial along with three other Nigerian hopefuls.
There, he was on trial for nearly three months, never knowing what his next step would be. He was in a foreign country for the first time surrounded by people he didn’t know, except for one teammate from Ebedei who was also on trial, never knowing when his tryout would end.
“We didn’t know if we were going to make it or not. There were four of us and they were only going to take two of us,” he said. “If we didn’t make it, we didn’t know if we’d ever get another chance.”
In a move that would prove fruitful to both the player and the club, Martins was picked up by Reggiana and within a year became a target for famed Italian giants Inter Milan, who paid a transfer fee of over 650,000 dollars for the youth star.
In his first year at San Siro, he regularly trained with the first team, but played exclusively with the youth team, scoring 23 goals to help them to the Italian Under-18 title.
In the 2002-03 season, manager Hector Cuper saw a player ready for the top Italian league and started integrating him into the first team more and more. However, Martins looked around the locker room and saw the likes of Christian Vieri, Javier Zanetti, Fabio Cannavaro and Hernan Crespo and he wasn’t so sure.
“Hector Cuper supported me and told me I was better than some players in the first team, but I didn’t believe it,” Martins said. “I was scared. I didn’t think I could handle it.”
Those fears subsided on March 19, 2003. Faced with injuries to many starters, Cuper turned to Martins in a crucial UEFA Champions League match against Bayer Leverkusen. At just 18 years old, he not only started for Inter Milan, but scored in the 36th minute what proved to be the game-winning goal to send Inter through to the quarterfinals.
Thus, the legend of Obafemi Martins exploded. His celebration for that goal would become iconic in Champions League lore.
More importantly, though, it proved to the young man that he belonged on the biggest stages that soccer had to offer.
“There were a lot of big, big players there at the time,” Martins said, unable to contain the astonishment even 10 years later. “I don’t know how I made it.”