It’s not outlandish to claim that Didier Drogba changed football. Little and large strike partnerships were the norm going into the 21st century and they stood the test of time for the next decade or so. But once Drogba began to shoulder the work of two men by himself, the goalposts moved.
One frontman was enough if he was as strong, powerful, quick, technically gifted, intelligent and potent as this particular Ivorian. However, Drogba wasn’t the only one blazing a trail. Obafemi Martins wasn’t quite as tall or as well-built as his African counterpart, but that didn’t stop him reaching the heroic heights that he did during his career.
Born in Lagos, Martins made the daunting but career-defining move to Italy with his older brother Ladi at the age of 16. After displaying their talents with Reggiana, the two boys – they still were at that point – were picked up by Inter in 2001. With a year or two finding the net frequently in the Primavera ranks, Obafemi broke into the Nerazzurri first team during the 2002/03 campaign. Héctor Cúper’s side were laying down a title challenge to those in Turin and had lost just two league games by the time Martins made his senior debut against Parma in December.
Two months later, he was in the starting line-up for Inter’s trip to Germany to face Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. The previous season’s finalists were bottom of the table having lost each of their first five fixtures in the second group phase, but Inter’s place in the quarter-finals was still on the line with Newcastle just a point behind them in third. Nevertheless, Cúper threw Martins into the mix and he marked his European bow in a style that would become familiar to many in the years that followed.
Very rarely does a celebration outrank the goal immediately prior but, in this case, it couldn’t have been truer. Sloppy Leverkusen defending let Martins race away and, although the calm left-footed finish hinted at composure beyond his years, the teenager’s daring display of flips dazzled spectators across the world that night. Suddenly, he wasn’t Obafemi Martins the potent goalscorer, but that kid who does cartwheels, which, for someone trying to make a name for themselves, isn’t necessarily negative.
Having manoeuvred past Valencia in the last eight, Inter were set for a semi-final showdown with Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan, and with the Rossoneri an away goal to the good going into the second half of the second leg, Cúper chucked Martins on at half time to try to salvage the tie.
With Paolo Maldini and his backline flustered from the presence of this young maverick, Martins took full advantage of his dizzying pace and his opponents’ lack of it. With 84 minutes on the clock, he tussled with Maldini before patting a high ball towards the penalty area with his back. As Christian Abbiati sprinted out to smother it, Martins darted past Maldini and slotted it into the near corner to haul Inter back into the tie.
That moment of pure, spontaneous genius didn’t ultimately help the Nerazzurri to a place in the Champions League final, but it more than made an impression. So did a trip to north London the following year as Martins speared Inter’s third past Jens Lehmann inside the first 45 minutes against Arsène Wenger’s eventual Invincibles. As the Arsenal fans gawped at their team’s first-half collapse, there they were again – the never-ending backflips.
There were no acrobatics in the derby a few weeks later as Martins’ swivel and strike proved to be just a consolation as Pippo Inzaghi, Kaká and Andriy Shevchenko inflicted the first defeat of the campaign on Cúper’s men. Then, on to another derby, the Derby d’Italia, and Martins was scoring and flipping again, with Inter on the right side of a 3-1 scoreline this time.
It was role reversal in the reverse fixture as Martins netted the opener to set the Nerazzurri on their way to a 3-2 victory over Juventus. A well-taken goal and some more somersaults the highlights of another impactful performance in a titanic clash for the Nigerian who had yet to turn 20.
Despite his ability to stamp his mark on a match, Martins was never the first name on the teamsheet and was often left out of the first XI. It was no wonder when the squad consisted of a Christian Vieri in his prime, an Adriano who was on the verge of becoming one of the brightest flashes in the pan of the 21st century, and Álvaro Recoba and Júlio Cruz. Roberto Mancini took charge in the summer of 2004 and altered the dynamic again.
Adriano evolved into a machine in front of goal, but even the ultimate marksmen need aids to help them manage the goalscoring mandate. Martins played more games than any of his fellow forwards during the following season and became the man, not just for the big occasion, but for every other.
Out of his 31 Serie A appearances that campaign, 16 came as a starter. He was the club’s top scorer in their triumphant run to Coppa Italia glory and was also prominent until their Champions League journey was halted by their own fans in the quarter-final fiasco with Milan. Mancini also made use of Martins off the bench, with the hallmark of that technique coming on a January afternoon against Sampdoria.
Vitali Kutuzov put the visitors 2-0 ahead going into the final five minutes at the San Siro before Inter’s wonderkid flipped the game on its head. His 88th-minute finish with the outside of his left foot brought the first before he bumped and barged his way past the Samp defence and picked out Vieri to volley in the equaliser. Recoba arrowed in the winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time to spark celebrations that had seemed impossible ten minutes earlier.
Switching our attention from Inter to international football, Martins’ Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, finishing second on head-to-head to Angola in their group. Martins did, however, feature at the 2006 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt as the Super Eagles were beaten by a Didier Drogba goal in their semi-final with the Ivory Coast in Alexandria. When Martins returned to Italy following the end of the competition, Inter had the chance to haul themselves back into Scudetto contention in an encounter against leaders Juve.
Martins started but was replaced by Cruz shortly after Zlatan Ibrahimović had given the Old Lady the lead. Walter Samuel equalised, only for Alessandro Del Piero to steal the three points and push Inter out of the title race in the closing stages. A derby defeat in mid-April was the final nail in the coffin in terms of a first league title in 17 years but, in the midst of a match-fixing and corruption scandal that plagued Italy’s top teams, there was a resurrection. With Juventus, Milan and Fiorentina all given hefty points deductions, the Scudetto fell on Inter’s lap.
The Calciopoli crimes may have put a Serie A medal around Martins’ neck, but it did little to help his Inter career. After Juventus were relegated to the second tier, Ibrahimović was snapped up by the Nerazzurri, while Hernán Crespo also came over from Chelsea. With Adriano still around, Martins knew his time was up and handed in a transfer request.
Newcastle came calling and he was wearing black and white stripes on Tyneside by the end of August. Two months after making the move from the San Siro to St. James’, the doubters began chewing their words, ready to write this 21-year-old striker off.
Taking Alan Shearer’s number 9 just a year after he’d retired was brave to say the least but, after several weeks of illness and injuries, a cult hero started to emerge. ‘Play like you used to at the park,’ many coaches tell young players. Parks began to endear themselves to Martins. His first nine Newcastle goals came at them; one at Upton, one at Ewood and seven at St. James’.
That run was stopped with a visit to White Hart Lane in January. Jermain Defoe and Dimitar Berbatov had given Tottenham a 2-1 lead with 70 minutes on the clock, but that didn’t hold. Kieron Dyer fed Martins the ball 25 yards from goal, the Nigerian’s touch didn’t do much to shift it out of his feet, but that was all forgotten. He thumped the ball with staggering precision and power into the near top corner, leaving the whole ground, and indeed himself, a little dazed.
Spurs still hadn’t recovered when Martins slid through for Nicky Butt to complete the turnaround just moments later. Suddenly, English football sat up and rubbed their eyes at this pocket rocket of a striker, one that would wreak havoc at the Lane again.
Some 14 months later, the Magpies were back and with Kevin Keegan at the helm this time. Butt struck again to draw the visitors level after Darren Bent’s first-half opener before Geremi steered in a free-kick after the break. A trident of Martins, Mark Viduka and Michael Owen became as scary as it sounds during a scintillating second-half display.
Martins, to Viduka, to Owen – goal. That was the third. The fourth came via Joey Barton, who sent Martins running at a panicked Jonathan Woodgate. One body feint was enough to send the League Cup final hero to the floor, allowing Martins to prod home in front of the travelling Geordies. And yes, out came a wonderful, perhaps more mature, single backflip by the corner flag, just for good measure. Once the three-goal lead was installed, Owen went off; so did Viduka. Keegan left the bull in the China shop, allowing Martins the full 90 minutes.
Mike Ashley celebrated those goals with his Newcastle shirt on in the directors’ box. A year later, the smiles weren’t there, neither was Ashley some of the time. Shearer was thrust into the hot seat to try to save his beloved club from relegation. Middlesbrough visited a St James’ Park on edge one Monday night in May. Both teams were level on 31 points with Hull, with the hosts the only one of the three outside the drop zone. With the score locked at 1-1 with 20 minutes to go, Shearer threw Martins on. Seconds later, he returned to the dugout and jumped on his boss having prodded past Brad Jones to give the Magpies a lead they desperately needed.
Peter Løvenkrands made sure of the points with a third, but it was the battle rather than the war that Newcastle had won. They dropped out of England’s top flight for the first time since 1993 and that signalled the end of Martins’ spell in the north-east. He took in Wolfsburg and Kazan before winding up back in the Premier League with Birmingham. Six months brought just two goals in a blue shirt and I think you know at least one of those. Wembley, Arsenal, Laurent Koscielny, Wojciech Szczesny, open goal, a League Cup winners medal and, of course, a few flips on such hallowed turf.
The next stops on Martins’ globetrotting football tour came with Levante in Spain, Seattle Sounders in the United States and Shanghai Shenhua in China, who he played his final game for in the summer of 2018. A serious knee injury should’ve ended his career according to many, but he hasn’t given up just yet. “I’m 34 but I feel like a teenager, and with this sensation, I can still play for any big team across the world,” Martins told Goal in September. So, wherever you find yourself, there could be a flipping fantastic footballer coming to a pitch near you very soon.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08