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Obafemi Martins: Nigeria’s Globetrotting Goal Machine

Obafemi Martins
Credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

The modern-day professional footballer can very much be a citizen of the world, seeking fame, and more often than not, fortune in all around the globe. Very few, however, could match the globetrotting exploits and success of Obafemi Martins. The Nigerian forward has plied his trade on four different continents, in different eight countries, and for ten different clubs. He’s taken ‘goals to Newcastle’, been sound in Seattle and blunted any feeling of Birmingham City fans being too blue by taking a top line trophy to the club. He’s also accumulated silverware and awards around the world and scored 18 goals in 42 games for his country.

After leaving Africa, Martins joined Reggiana’s youth set-up in Italy’s Serie C1, but it was a short stay in the lower league and a move to Inter Milan for the 2001-02 season suggested an ability to perform at a much higher level. Along with the Nerazzurri’s youngsters, he won the Campionato Nazionale Primavera in his first term there, breaking into the first team, the following season. The next few years would be filled with success as Inter won the Coppa Italia in 2004-05, and then repeated the feat the following season, adding the Scudetto title to complete a domestic double. Martins would contribute a highly creditable 39 goals in 136 games for the San Siro club, up to the end of the 2005-06 season. Serie A, however, is a fast-moving environment, and when Inter added Hernán Crespo and Zlatan Ibrahimović to their squad, it was clear that opportunities for Martins would become increasingly limited. A transfer request brought in a Newcastle United bid of some €15 million. Inter accepted and Martins moved from northern Italy to the North-East of England.

The fabled Magpies’ number nine shirt can weigh as heavy a cement overcoat on any player who may harbour even the slightest doubt of his worth to wear it, and an early injury to Martins in his debut for the Geordies was hardly encouraging for the newcomer, but this was a player who had competed in Serie A. He would be back in a few weeks demonstrating his prowess. His first term at St James Park brought 17 goals in 46 games, and the promise of a better season to follow. Managerial upheaval though is hardly beneficial to a settled playing structure, and when Glenn Roeder was replaced by Sam Allardyce for the forward’s second season with the club, the Nigerian found himself forced into a regular substitute role with the pair of Mark Viduka and Michael Owen being preferred ahead of him. Things would improve with the brief return of Kevin Keegan to the manager’s chair though, and despite restricted game time, both thanks to team selection and time away at the ACON tournament with Nigeria, a return of 10 goals in 33 games still roughly equated to the one in three from his first term with Newcastle.

The second half of the following season was dogged by injury and his time away from first team action could hardly have helped the club, as Newcastle drifted down the table towards relegation. He would return for the final two league games of the season, scoring in a vital game against Middlesbrough, but it was to prove insufficient as the club fell through the trap door into the Championship. A publicly espoused intention to help the club to return to the top-tier was shown to be irrelevant as Newcastle cut their cloth to suit their diminished circumstances and accepted £9 million from Wolfsburg. Martins moved to the Bundesliga.

A four-year contract was still in its infancy when, after just one season and six goals for the club, Russian club Rubin Kazan offered the German club a rapid and large profit on their outlay and spent €17 million to take Martins to Russia. The club was becoming a dominant force in the Russian game, and adding the firepower that Martins brought with him was seen as the thing to drive the club on to more success.

It would be a strange time for Martins with the Russian Premier League club though. Initial success would be followed by a few months back in England with Birmingham City following a request to be near family after the birth of his child. Whilst in the Midlands, he would only play six games for the Blues, but would score one of the club’s most celebrated goals when coming on as a late substitute in the 2011 League Cup Final against Arsenal, he notched a last-minute winning goal that took the trophy to St Andrews and made him a club legend for evermore.

Returning to Russia, he would see glory with a Russian Cup victory in 2012, although injury would again limit his game time, and in the 2012-13 season, he would play just a single game for the club before a free transfer took him to Levante in Spain in September. Again, a fairly long contract would come nowhere near to completion. A two-year deal was cut short in March 2013 when, after nine goals in 27 games, MLS club, Seattle Sounders announced that Martins would be joining them. Initially, the move was resisted by Levante, with legal action even being mooted amid accusations of improper approaches. By mid-March however, they conceded defeat and accepted that with the American club having met the player’s buyout clause, it was a done deal.

The Nigerian’s time in Washington State was successful both in terms of goals and awards. No less than 43 goals in 83 games was the forward’s most prolific period in his career to date. The club won both the MLS Supporters’ Shield and the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in 2014, and individually Martins received the award for the MLS Goal of the Year in the same season for his strike against San Jose Earthquakes. The end of season awards also saw him included in MLS Best XI selection, and the following year he was included in the MLS All-Star team.

In February 2016, Martins moved to his fourth continent, joining Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua as the money-rich Asian league hoovered up talent from around the globe. Inevitably, with clubs recruiting so many players from different leagues, some would fall short of the required standard. Not so for the much-travelled Obafemi Martins. Improving on his strike rate in America, he would score 15 goals in 31 games in his first term with the club and follow that up with 13 in 21 during his second term, a brace of which came in the two-legged final to help Shangui lift the 2017 FA Chinese Cup. Martins would also be the top scorer in the tournament.

Some players have difficulty adapting to new surroundings, different languages and cultures as their services are traded for big money transfers; many fail to hit the heights with at least some of their new clubs. It’s a charge that no-one can lay at the feet of Obafemi Martins. His almost 20-year career from junior football in Africa to topline performer in Asia has taken in so many and varying ports of call. It seems clear that while some may struggle, the Nigerian forward recognises only the similarities of pitch and goal dimensions, and proves the point with an unerring ability to plant the ball into the back of the net. Have boots, will travel. Then add in, will score as well!

About the author

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Gary Thacker

Now living in Spain, Gary is the author of two books about football and writes for a number of high profile magazines and websites. He also appears regularly on podcast and had worked for BBC Radio and talkSPORT. In 2017, he was shortlisted for the FSF 'Blogger of the year' award.

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