Jump to content

Obafemi Martins: Leap of faith from Lagos to Newcastle

Recommended Posts

He landed by the Tyne last year after an already eventful career. Now, Obafemi Martins tells Jason Burt, he is after goals and trophies

Published: 25 August 2007

"In Italy they say I'm faster than the ball," says Obafemi Martins. It's a neat way for the striker to explain just how rapid he is – although that blistering asset, which made him a schoolboy sprint champion, is something he is not keen to dwell on. Instead Martins wants to talk about skill, technique, scoring goals and "monkey posts".


In Lagos, Nigeria's largest city and Martins' hometown, the boys play street football on tight, dusty pitches. Five-a-side, six-a-side. Every day. The same teams. No shoes. Before and after school – and "sometimes on the way to school – or during school," Martins laughs again, with a shrug.


The monkey posts were the goals. He doesn't know why they are given that name but describes marking out five toe-to-heel distances with his foot for the width of each, with small plastic cones being set down. A tiny target to aim for. "It was hard to score. You have to pass and pass," Martins acknowledges of the fierce encounters.


Often two hours would go by without a goal – even though there were no keepers. And that's why each goal, when it was eventually scored, was celebrated so outrageously. With somersaults, back-flips, rolls. "Five, six, seven, eight," says Martins, with his hands in a tumbling motion, replicating the extraordinary gymnastics and how he, and his friends, tried to outdo each other. "You do something," he says, "And then you try to do something more. And then something more."


But then no one would forget an Oba Martins' goal celebration. It's Lomana LuaLua's handsprings or Nani's aerial twists – but with bells and whistles. And Martins knows how important goals are. After all he wears the No 9 shirt at Newcastle United: indeed, he sought it out when he signed last summer. And, before he set down in the North-east, he studied a DVD, admittedly thrust into his hand, of Alan Shearer's 206 strikes for the Toon.


Martins has not shirked the challenge. Indeed, he claims that the notion of emulating Shearer, whom he vividly remembers from a Champions League tie against his former club Internazionale in 2003 when the then Newcastle captain struck twice, was one of the main reasons he moved to St James' Park.


"He scored a lot of goals and that's why I'm here," Martins says. "When they gave me the shirt it was like, 'OK, I need to prove more and more of myself'. This shirt is important. But, as well, the shirt without the player is nothing." A shard of confidence, also, from the man who struck 17 times last season and was disappointed not to reach 20. "The point of wearing the shirt is to score goals. It is the goalscorer's shirt," he adds.


Such is the premium on strikers that Martins' name has inevitably been raised in the hectic summer transfer market. Arsenal made an informal inquiry and Manchester United have discussed him while Juventus were interested too. Alarm was raised in Newcastle when it was revealed that Martins, who signed for £10m from Inter on a five-year deal, has a £13m release clause in his contact. It meant the club were powerless to stop his departure if it was triggered.


He is aware of the interest, but is keen to qualify the situation. "It's good that sometimes other big clubs are interested in you. It can't be a bad thing. But I'm happy at Newcastle and I've not been thinking about leaving," Martins, still just 22, says. But doesn't he miss the Champions League? "I played in it for three years and now I'm not – but that's not a problem. The Premiership is a good league and the world is watching. I'm not bothered."


Still, Newcastle are keen to renegotiate his contract and Martins is keen to listen. However, he adds: "If they want to give me a new contract, then that's good. But I'm not asking for more money. The problem is my existing contract isn't a good one. I didn't want the clause and didn't even know about it."


As a sign of his commitment he says he just bought a house in Darras Hall, the footballers' enclave of choice in Newcastle. It adds to the flat he rents by the River Tyne where his next door neighbour is the Turkish international Emre, who was also his team-mate at Inter. "I want to stay – that's why I said, 'OK, I'll buy a house'," Martins says. His family – he is one of seven children – have just returned to Nigeria after spending time in Newcastle with him, and will soon return, led by his mother, Alhaja.


She is a formidable presence in his life. Alhaja ran a store in Lagos as Martins grew up. The family were not wealthy but neither did they struggle. Then one day, when Martins was 14, he was spotted playing street football by Churchill Oliseh, the elder brother of Sunday Oliseh, the former Nigerian international. Oliseh was impressed and called Martins over, asking him if he wanted to play for a local team, FC Ebedei. "And he said they'd pay me money!" Martins laughs. "For playing football! He said, 'Take this and meet me at the training ground', and put some money in my hand. I just said, 'OK'."


Life became a whirlwind. Martins was in the youth team, but not for long. Soon Oliseh called him over again. "He said, 'I think you are ready to go to Italy'. And I went home and told my parents. I was only 15. I knew I had to go. It wasn't a difficult decision. So it was a big thing too. My parents told me to go but my mum cried. They prayed a lot that I would make it."


Martins went for a two-month trial with Reggiana, then in Serie C and the club where Sunday Oliseh had started his career. "It was difficult and different. And very cold," Martins says. He was with three other Nigerian boys. One day all four were called into a room and told that the club could afford to keep only two of them on. Martins and Steve Makinwa, now a midfielder with Lazio, were chosen. The other boys returned to Nigeria and he has not heard of them since.


Training was hard. Martins felt bewildered. "They touched the ball, one-two and we just seemed to be running around trying to catch them," he says of the Italian players. The language was also a barrier but he continued to impress and, following a breakthrough season, Perugia and then Inter came calling. "I didn't know much about Inter Milan," he says. "One of my friends from the Nigerian youth team was there so I thought that was where I should go."


Once he was at San Siro, the scale of the club hit him. As did the calibre of the players. Shearer is not the only legendary No 9 for Martins. His hero? Ronaldo. "He was there," Martins recalls. "I was just in the youth team and watched him. I just said to myself, 'Oba, you have to work hard. That's all.' I saw [Christian] Vieri, too, and loved him. I saw these players and thought, 'How can I get into this team?' They were all top strikers."


Ronaldo talked to him. "There were just a few words," Martins says. But it mattered to him. And he mattered to Inter and their coach, Hector Cuper. One day he was called in, on the eve of a Champions League tie. Inter were crippled by injuries and Martins had only a handful of minutes of first-team experience. "We were due to play Bayer Leverkusen," Martins says. "And we needed to win. If we didn't, we were out, I was really scared but the coach called me and had me alone in the dressing room and told me, 'You are starting tomorrow. Just play as if you are training. I know you can do it, you are a good player. Just relax.' The team supported me and I realised I could do it. I scored and we won 2-0."


Inter made it through to the semi-finals, facing city rivals Milan. Martins came off the bench to score again, but his team were eliminated on away goals after a 1-1 draw. He, however, was on a roll now. The following October he devastated Arsenal in the same competition, 3-0 at Highbury, and one of the spectators was Glenn Roeder, who would later be the manager to take Martins to Newcastle.


He had a good life in Italy, a home by Lake Como, 15 minutes from the training ground, and a contract that ran until 2010. The language never came easily to him but he thrived. Genuinely two-footed, and with that terrific pace, as well as being surprisingly strong in the air, despite being 5ft 7in, he scored 37 goals in 105 domestic games. But Inter are a difficult club, with a high turnover of coaches as well as players, and Martins found himself out of the team more than he was in it. More and more strikers arrived.


"There were seven, eight," he says. "And Inter said they needed more. I couldn't believe it. When [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic arrived I thought, 'I can sort this out because he's different from me'. And then they signed [Hernan] Crespo and I thought, 'OK, the coach is thinking differently now'. He wasn't looking for young players and so I made my decision to go. I had always wanted to come to England. My team-mates in the Nigeria team – Kanu, [Joseph] Yobo – as well, they like it here. They called me and said, 'Oba, you have to come here. You'll be happier than in Italy'."


Again, however, the first year was tough. Martins was injured, Newcastle struggled and he felt under "pressure" to perform, not least because Michael Owen was out. "It's faster and more physical but you get ready for it," he says. "You have to know that when the goalkeeper gets the ball you are going to attack straight away. It's not like that in Italy."


But it was in Italy that he made his name, and that name is now blazed across Nigeria. He goes back often and wants to contribute. Money is donated, anonymously, to help raise orphan children and Martins is in the process of setting up his own charity, through London-based Chris Nathaniel, of NVA management, who handles his business affairs. "Nigeria is a wonderful country," he says. "And it's my country, a happy place. The best place in the world."


Much was made, over the summer, of an incident late one night in June when a car owned by Martins was shot at in a Lagos petrol station. The headlines screamed "gun raid terror", but he wants to play it down. The police have questioned his story and, although Martins maintains he was in the vehicle, he is also certain he was not a target.


"I have a guy who drives a car for me in Nigeria," he explains. "And he was probably followed or something. I think they wanted to rob the car. I don't think they knew I was in it, I don't think they were after me. It's just one of those incidents and things like that happen all over the world. Three days after it happened I was back in Nigeria and, for me, it was forgotten."


What is not forgotten is just how important he has become to the Nigerian people. He has the usual celebrity endorsements, the fame and money, and still blushes at the thought of the giant billboards showing his face. "Yes," he says. "But it's all down to God. I worked hard as well to get here and it wasn't easy. But it's God's will."


With two goals already this season, Martins also wants to take on that responsibility at Newcastle, who face Middlesbrough in the Tyne-Tees derby tomorrow. He feels that under Roeder's successor, Sam Allardyce, the team have a chance of winning their first trophy since the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the forerunner to the Uefa Cup, in 1969. It's a drought that he is well aware of. "The fans are great, passionate but it has been a long time since something has been won. They really want that trophy. Big Sam is a good man. But serious in training. You don't mess up. If you do it's like, 'You're out'. It takes a while to settle but I have done that and, for me, I'm happy at Newcastle. Everything is getting better.


"Better players are arriving and I think we can do well. It's about the team and playing together, and it's great that Michael Owen is fit. We will all try to support each other. It's not about Martins scoring 20 or 30 goals. If I score 50 goals it doesn't matter, if we are not winning."


Travelling man Martins' career


Full name: Obafemi Akinwunmi Martins


Born: Lagos, 28/10/84


Previous clubs: FC Ebedei, Reggiana, Internazionale


Joined Newcastle United for £10m in August 2006. Debut v Aston Villa, 27/8/06.


48 appearances, 19 goals


Nigeria debut v Ireland, 29/5/04


14 caps, 11 goals


* Honours Serie A 2005-06 Coppa Italia 2004-05, 2005-06


Super Coppa Italiana 2004-05, 2005-06


African Nations Cup bronze medal 2006


Confederation of African Football's Young Player of the Year 2003, 2004


"Most Entertaining Interviewee" from Italian press, 2004

Link to post
Share on other sites
"If they want to give me a new contract, then that's good. But I'm not asking for more money. The problem is my existing contract isn't a good one. I didn't want the clause and didn't even know about it."


Fair play to him if true.

More evidence he's thick as fuck iyam.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...