From poverty to Porto: Why Jackson Martinez is finally ripe for a big move to the Premier League
Although a prolific marksman in South America, when Porto bought Jackson Martinez in 2012, few were expecting him to match the feats of his recently departed compatriot Radamel Falcao, who in two brilliant years at the Estadio do Dragao scored 72 goals for the Blue and Whites. A little over two years later and you can argue that Jackson has been every bit as productive at the club as his international team-mate.
Until recently he'd scored the exact same number of goals as Falcao, albeit in 20 more games, but his current tally of 75 goals in 110 matches is still a stunning record, especially when considering that Jackson’s supporting cast has been nowhere near the same quality as his predecessor, who benefited from a generous supply line of chances fabricated by Hulk, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho at their peak.
In contrast, Jackson, as he is known in Portugal, has often carried the team. Porto’s summer spending spree finally afforded him the high-quality team-mates a player of his calibre deserves. He has responded by bettering his goalscoring ratio in 2014/15, so far hitting the net 15 times in 19 matches.
Fierce shooting with either foot, a constant threat in the air and a finely tuned predatory instinct in the box combine to make Jackson a complete striker. He is also capable of the spectacular, like this audacious goal against Sporting, managed in a blink of the eye with his back to goal.
His first coach at Porto, Vitor Pereira, with whom he lifted the Portuguese Liga title and was crowned the Primeira Liga’s top scorer in his debut season, has no doubts that the Colombian is up there with the best.
Asked to define the goalscorer after a triumphant first season, Pereira said: “We’d been tracking him for three years. He would have cost us much less if we’d got him earlier, but he moved from Colombia to Mexico.
“He’s technically fantastic, has a strong personality and the attributes of a world-class player. I believe with the development, professionalism and maturity he has shown he’s going to be one of the best in the world.”
Hunger, shyness and shame
Jackson's rise to stardom is a classic rags-to-riches story. In 2004 the striker was scouted by Colombian club Independiente Medellin when playing in a local tournament. His impoverished family barely had enough money to pay for the 200km journey from his hometown of Quibdo to Colombia’s second-largest city, but his father scraped together the cash and sent his son on his way.
His first coach Pedro Sarmiento said the youngster's spindly build was a direct consequence of malnutrition, owing to a lack of money to properly feed himself. “He didn’t eat well and went hungry several days a week,” Sarmiento told Portuguese football site Maisfutebol. “Despite being a professional footballer, he had awful conditions. I myself had to buy him shorts, socks, shin pads and boots so he could train. He was beyond poor; he was practically destitute.”
To make matters worse, Jackson didn’t open his mouth out of shyness and embarrassment. “He was a wall of silence and shame,” Sarmiento continued. “He would always arrive late for training. I shouted at him but he wouldn’t reply. That was when the others told me he had no money and he came to training on foot, a two-hour walk there and a two-hour walk back. I pressed him to talk and he admitted that he didn’t have a single peso in his pocket. His family were going through tough times and couldn’t send him any money. I took him in and he became one of my household.”
The fame and fortune Jackson’s talent has brought him must have seemed a distant dream in those early days, especially after an inauspicious start to his senior career. “When he first came off the bench, making his debut for a few minutes, he was roundly booed and insulted by the fans,” explained Sarmiento.
“I was one of the few who believed in that skinny kid. I felt he had something special and refused to give up on him. He was given a rough ride by the home supporters, so I waited before picking him again. We travelled to Bucaramanga and I made him a starter. He destroyed them – he played with rage. The fans never disrespected him again.”
Jackson Martinez’s first monthly salary at Independiente was around 400,000 pesos (€172), i.e. next to nothing. Independiente’s football director Fernando Jimenez told Maisfutebol how the money side of things began improving for the teenage striker just minutes before his official debut.
“After talking to the coach we realised that Jackson wasn’t in a good way,” said Jimenez. “He had a sad air about him. I sat beside him just before he went out on the pitch and said: ‘Tomorrow you start earning 800,000 pesos.’ His face broke out into a broad smile I’d never seen before.”
Despite the initial scepticism from his own team’s fans, Jimenez recalls that in the very first week of training he would leave the watching coaches open-mouthed: “On the fifth day of training they were completely convinced. ‘Where did you discover him? He’s a star!’ they said.”
Moving on up
So having proved the doubters wrong so comprehensively at his first club and at Porto, with an equally successful spell at Mexican team Jaguares de Chiapas in between, the question is: can he take the final step up and thrive in one of Europe’s top leagues, a decade after his football journey began?
The increased physical rigours will not be a problem; long gone are worries about his body strength. Jackson’s powerful frame makes him a formidable competitor for the toughest of defenders.
His less than stellar performances in European competition before this season (six goals in 19 appearances) may explain why clubs from the major leagues haven't yet come in for him. Along with his goals, he also contrives to miss some absolute sitters (not to mention his poor penalty conversion record), and in more competitive leagues there will be fewer chances than in Portugal.
But, like port, he is only improving with age and appears ripe for the big time. He has netted six goals in seven Champions League games this season, and bagged a brace against Japan in his one World Cup start in Brazil.
Potential suitors may also have been warded off by a huge release clause at notorious hard bargainers Porto. Significantly, the clause was reduced to €35 million (from €40m) in August, along with an improved and extended contract.
The word in Portugal is that the deal was struck to guarantee one more season out of Jackson and pave the way for his sale at the end of the season. Rumours had dragged on for months that Jackson was getting itchy feet, and having recently turned 28, the Colombian knows it is now or never for a lucrative move to one of Europe’s richest leagues.