By Chris Smith.
He might be sidelined with an ACL injury right now but there’s no questioning Josef Martinez remains the most feared striker in Major League Soccer.
The 27-year-old has scored no fewer than 90 goals in just 103 appearances across all competitions for Atlanta United since joining the club from Torino in 2017. Along the way, Martinez has broken the single-season MLS goalscoring record and lifted four pieces of silverware, including MLS Cup in 2018.
Having initially struggled to settle in Europe with Young Boys — who he joined from Caracas in his homeland in 2012 — FC Thun and Torino, Martinez has now found a home in Atlanta, where he is worshipped by supporters in a way few sportspeople are in the United States, let alone a soccer player.
It hasn’t always been so simple for the Five Stripes’ number seven, though. Growing up in Carabobo State, a young Martinez had to deal with all the rigours of living in one of the most deprived areas of Venezuela, but a trip with his father to the Aquiles Nazoa Futsal School in Valencia, Carabobo, as a six-year-old would prove to be the catalyst to what has become a remarkable and well-travelled career which has taken in spells across three different continents.
At Aquiles Nazoa, Martinez was introduced to the man who would guide him through his first steps into football and, speaking exclusively to World Football Index, Simon Lozano tells us all about that first meeting and his early impressions of a future MLS icon.
“The first time I saw Josef was when he entered our field in the Achilles Nazoa neighbourhood, together with his father Alex and my friend who were in charge of bringing him to play indoor football,” Lozano tells WFi.
“He started at our school at the age of six, in the U-7 category. That day, it was a great pleasure to see how little Josef played.”
Right from the off, Martinez made an impression on Lozano, who says the striker displayed “god-given” skills well beyond his years — skills that he still shows today at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
He adds: “In a matter of seconds, I noticed that Martinez had incredible ball skills that surpassed all children his age and older than him, and I predicted that gift that God gave him was going to make Josef successful at a very early age. He is still showing it with Atlanta United today.”
Arguably Martinez’s biggest quality is his absolute burning desire to win every game he plays, down to each individual duel on the pitch. On social media, he is characterised by the angry face emoji both he and Atlanta United use in their posts and Lozano hints that this was, in fact, his standard disposition even when playing the game as a child.
Readyyyyyy 😡😡😡😡 pic.twitter.com/PrJp4FqBio
— Josef Martinez (@JosefMartinez17) July 16, 2020
“He always had a winning mentality and he never liked to lose,” says Lozano. “You could see the anger on his face but he used that to overcome his obstacles and today, you can still see the winning mentality he always shows.
“He always showed that he was a serious and very observant person, you could tell that when he arrived to play against the opposition.”
The fact that Martinez began his footballing journey learning from a futsal coach is evident in his style of play. Able to drop deep and help link Atlanta United’s build-up play or hang on the last defender and use his low centre of gravity to spin into space, Martinez is as slippery as he is strong and as explosive as he is elegant.
Lozano credits much of this to futsal’s ability to nurture “multi-purpose” players who can think quickly, even when playing in very restricted spaces.
“The process of developing futsal into football is very important because the dynamic of the game is in its speed and the reduction of space, which forces you to think in a fast and effective way,” he explains.
“Futsal is important because it creates multi-purpose players and when they change to football, it makes it easier for them to develop their game. That is why Josef Martínez, when he dribbles, uses different footwork and manages to pass his opponents easily, you can see that all this is thanks to futsal.”
“I have never had support from the football federation. We have never been compensated by any professional team”
Alongside Martinez, Lozano has had a big hand in producing other Venezuelan talents such as four-time international and current Monagas striker, José Miguel Reyes, as well as Trujillanos’ Javier Jaramillo and one of the stars of La Vinotinto’s women’s team, Daniuska Rodriguez, whose goal against Colombia at the 2016 South American U-17 Women’s Championship ranked third at FIFA’s Puskas Awards. She currently plies her trade in Portugal with Braga.
His methods may seem unusual to some but given the number of professionals to emerge from Aquiles Nazoa, they clearly work.
Still, Lozano — a father of three whose two sons are also involved in Aquiles Nazoa — reveals to us the struggles he faces to provide classes for his students every day, which include repairing the stitches and air valves on footballs rather than having to buy new ones.
This is largely thanks to the financial disparity and a general disregard at play for coaches at his level in Venezuela from both the country’s football federation and its professional teams, who have never once offered funding for Lozano’s school or recompense when they sign one of his players — for example, when national giants Caracas snapped up Martinez after Aquiles Nazoa developed him until the age of 14.
Former players, including Martinez, often visit Aquiles Nazoa and help where they can, but if more was done at a national level to help coaches like him, Lozano believes the sporting and social situation in Venezuela would see a tangible improvement.
“I am a coach from the suburbs and have never had any support from the football federation, we have never been rewarded by any professional team,” he reveals. “I have had the support of parents and some sports institutes, private companies in my district.
“Right now, I’m receiving the support of sports material from the association of the state where I live [in Carabobo].
“If more support was given to coaches in the suburbs, more young people could be rescued to focus on sport and not on the streets.”
Even so, this hands-on approach has fostered a much closer bond between Lozano — who counts “the value of sacrifice” and “taking responsibility” among his most important principles — and his players. Regardless of receiving no thanks or funding from professional clubs, he cannot deny the pride he feels when one of his players does make the step up.
“The gratification of seeing them grow up as good citizens and achieving their dreams in professional football in Venezuela or abroad,” Lozano responds when asked what his biggest motivation is.
“I have no words to describe that emotion, and to tell everyone about the experience of a professional player who went through his training at the Aquiles Nazoa Futsal School.
“It fills me with pride to see them succeed and for my family to know that I was part of their success.”
Lozano tells us his immediate focus is on dealing with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has seen attendance at the school plummet from 200 students to classes as small as 16. Meanwhile, many in the Carabobo area have been left without work or basic supplies, living on small food handouts from local authorities.
A bright future for La Vinotinto?
For a long time, Venezuela were the whipping boys of South America, having to wait 40 long years (1967-2007) between their first and second Copa America wins while to date, they have never competed at a FIFA World Cup.
However, in recent years, more and more players have been making the move to the fertile breeding ground that is Major League Soccer. Alongside Martinez, the likes of Rolf Feltscher (LA Galaxy), Júnior Moreno (DC United) and Cristian Casseres Jr (New York Red Bulls) are among a clutch of players plying their trade in the United States. Further afield, national team regulars such as Yangel Herrera (Granada) — previously loaned to NYCFC from Man City — and Salomon Rondon (Dalian Professional) have experienced success in Europe, Asia and beyond.
Martinez’s personal relationship with the national team can be best described as tender. Despite picking up 51 senior caps to date — scoring 11 goals — the Atlanta United striker released an open later in 2019 explaining that an “ever-deteriorating professional relationship” with former head coach Rafael Dudamel was having a negative effect on his mental health and fueled his decision to step away from international duty.
With Dudamel since replaced by Jose Peseiro, Martinez has left the door open on a future return to the national team. Lozano believes this, along with funnelling more young Venezuelan talent into North America and Europe, will be the key to La Vinotinto reaching their maiden World Cup and even winning Copa America.
Agradecido por la llamada del profesor José Peseiro. Sostuvimos una conversación muy profesional y sincera. Me ilusiona iniciar una nueva etapa en la selección nacional de Venezuela.
— Josef Martinez (@JosefMartinez17) February 5, 2020
“I don’t think Josef has had much fortune in the national team due to his coaches and especially with Rafael Dudamel, who did not bet on the ability of Martinez,” Lozano tells us. “I would love to see him wearing the national team shirt again.”
He adds: “We have a team of excellent players in our country and abroad. If future generations emigrate to Europe or North America, we would have a fundamental football process to achieve qualification for a World Cup and even win a Copa America title.”
Read more of WFi’s coverage of Venezuelan football here: