National pride: The personal and political goals of Venezuela's Josef Martinez

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta's attacking star is trying to offer hope to a nation in turmoil.

ATLANTA -- Josef Martinez pointed to a panorama photo hanging on the wall of the conference room in the shiny, still-new training center of Atlanta United, the 2017 expansion team and first MLS franchise in the Deep South.

It showed Atlanta’s Bobby Dodd stadium at the sold-out, first game of the year, on March 5. “What’s the MLS record [for attendance]?” he eagerly asked a team administrator, sitting across the conference-room table. 

Atlanta United has launched at a dizzying pace, leading MLS in goals scored and average attendance, as well as looking likely to become the first expansion team in eight years to enter the playoffs. And although two injuries have sidelined Martinez for more than half the season, the Venezuelan forward tops the league in goals per 90 minutes, at 1.36. Until recently, he also led his team in goals thanks to his dangerous change of pace on the ground and surprisingly effective aerial abilities.

A pioneer of sorts, Martinez is MLS’ highest-profile player from Venezuela, traditionally a cradle of baseball talent and the only CONMEBOL country never to qualify for the World Cup. Historical numbers show the gulf between the two sports: MLS has featured a baker’s dozen of Venezuelan players while Major League Baseball has imported more than 530.

The country is also in complete chaos. Months of battles between government forces and protesters have left dozens of deaths, mostly civilians, while inflation spirals higher and food and medical supplies become ever more scarce. This has, of course, touched sports, too. On the morning Martinez asked about attendance records, he had received messages on his phone about a teenaged professional player who was shot and killed in a protest, the second such death in recent weeks.

The situation means Martinez’s success takes on extra meaning. He sees himself offering some hope to a nation in pain, though he struggles with the limited impact he can have on the country’s conflict.

“Athletes have a role to play,” said Martinez, painfully aware of how restricted his help can be. “A message on the internet can help lift a person’s spirits, but it doesn’t feed that person."

Growing the game

Soccer has become increasingly important in Venezuela over the last two decades -- starting in 2001, when the men’s national team won four World Cup qualifying games in a row. Hosting the 2007 Copa America helped develop infrastructure, while the youth teams continued to improve: a first men’s U-20 World Cup appearance in 2009, a first U-17 World Cup in 2013, and a run to the 2017 U-20 World Cup final. Meanwhile, the women’s U-17s reached the World Cup semis in 2014 and 2016.

These developments “raised the interest of many children,” noted Venezuelan soccer commentator Humberto Turinese. “They saw themselves in the national teams.”

Now 24, Martinez was either very young or already playing professionally during many of those moments. He’s “very happy with the achievements [those] teams have reached and continue to reach,” though his main inspiration from home remains “my family, my friends and the work I do every day.”

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Turinese, a television commentator for the Venezuelan men’s team, has seen the Atlanta United forward’s efforts since Martinez’s agent, Sebastian Cano, pointed him out as a child. This includes Martinez’s early days taking buses three hours a day to and from training in Caracas; traveling to tryouts with Argentinean team Estudiantes, where he was thwarted by FIFA rules disallowing foreign players under 18 from signing professional contracts; entering the U-20 national team, as well as the men’s national team; and, finally, signing his first contract in a major European league, with Italian side Torino, where he languished for several years before coming to Atlanta United.

Cano detailed this arc in a 40-minute documentary that aired on Venezuelan TV. Now that he is doing well at Atlanta United, said Cano, Martinez is an example for children in his home country. “All of us in Venezuela see the news, a Venezuelan reaching success abroad,” he said. “With everything that’s happening in the country, kids receive this news, and it gives them a big reason to hope for the future.”

Shifting the global imbalance

Martinez is aware of being a role model, and not just for children. He sees his triumphs as “raising the name of my country higher.” He also admits that some of his countrymen take to social media to minimize those same achievements, saying, “Yes, but you’re in MLS.” In Venezuela, soccer fans and players “always think of Europe,” Martinez said.

But that too is changing, according to Turinese. “Many players and agents are seeing MLS as very attractive -- for the pay, infrastructure, attendance, and marketing … I have no doubt that young Venezuelan players are going to continue to come to the U.S.” 

Being abroad doesn’t stop him communicating with his homeland. Like the video he posted in May on Instagram and Twitter, posing in his national team’s jersey and urging his compatriots to have “unity and strength … in this painful time.” A month later, Martinez posted a photo of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, topped by the word, “Assassin.”        

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

       

But he can only do so much for the many Venezuelan soccer players and other friends who beseech him constantly -- often for aid in getting out of the country. “People ask me every day for help,” he said. “If I had my own team, I would, but I don’t. I don’t have so much money that I can help everyone who approaches me … I wish I could help them all, but I’m just a soccer player.”

Martinez also feels the danger his own family faces, including the threat of kidnapping that many Venezuelan baseball players have spoken about in recent months. Some of Major League Baseball’s nearly 100 Venezuelans have also taken to social media to support their compatriots while expressing the same sort of anguish Martinez feels.

Clear goals

Even under this weight, Martinez is clear-headed about his job at Atlanta United, which he will resume as soon his right foot recovers from a bruise he sustained in June.

And he has a clear vision for the future: more success at Atlanta; reaching the World Cup, although not this time around, as Venezuela is dead last in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying; and, someday, running the soccer academy that Cano launched in Venezuela nine years ago, where about one in five children doesn’t have to pay to attend because they’re “from neighborhoods like the one I grew up in.”

In the immediate future, Martinez questions whether Venezuela’s August 31 World Cup qualifying match at home against Colombia should go on as scheduled. “We can’t play … it’s a celebration when the national team plays, and my country is not in the mood to celebrate right now. Venezuela is suffering a lot. People are dying.”

“The happiest day for me,” he added, “will be when my country is at peace, when those in power have left and when they’ve paid for what they’ve done.”

As for his own part in his country’s story, he is humble but hopeful.

“I hope people say that there’s a Venezuelan who is doing good things, and that someone knows about Venezuela because of me.” 

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