Toni Martinez let out a roar of elation. On his knees and with clenched fists, the emotion poured out of him. FC Porto had knocked Juventus out of the Champions League, playing with only ten men for more than an hour. The striker and his team-mates battled the might of Cristiano Ronaldo and the Bianconeri through extra-time and clinched the vital away goal needed to progress and book a quarter-final tie against Chelsea.
“When you get to the final rounds you know every game will be a tough game because the competition is big, it’s the biggest competition in the year,” Martinez tells The Sportsman in an exclusive interview ahead of the clash. “We know every team will be difficult. We will prepare and we are ready for it.”
For Martinez, gearing up for a massive European encounter is a far cry from turning out for West Ham’s second string and playing at Chesterfield, Oldham and Walsall in League One whilst on loan at Oxford United back in 2017. Now appearing for one of the game’s giants, the Spaniard is playing on the biggest stage in club football and is glad to have another opportunity to show what he can do against a team from the capital when the Dragons take on Chelsea.
“I have good memories from England but it’s true, I have something inside of me, because…” he says, putting his hand towards his chest, “I didn’t get many chances to play for the first-team at West Ham. After a few years, Chelsea will be an important game for me.
“When I was on loan (at Oxford), I scored in the FA Cup in both games against Newcastle and Middlesbrough. I have good memories from West Ham as well; I scored many goals with the under-23s and made my debut but as I say to you, I have something inside of me. I did well after West Ham and I’m happy to play a quarter-final in the Champions League.”
The 23-year-old Spaniard, who was born in Barrio del Progreso in Murcia, Spain, and began his career with Valencia, did make three appearances for the Hammers’ first-team, all in the FA Cup, before going on loan to Real Valladolid, Rayo Majadahonda and Lugo in his homeland.
After three years in the East End, he left in the summer of 2019 on a free transfer and joined Primeria Liga new boys Famalicao. It proved to be a career-changing switch as he regularly hit the back of the net to help the club finish sixth and caught the eye of FC Porto who signed him in October on a five-year deal.
“I think it was my best season in my career (so far) because I scored fifteen goals,” he says of the 2019-20 campaign. “It was a good season for me and also the achievement to sign for Porto was the most important thing at the end of the year.
“Life is good, this is my second year here in Portugal and now I play for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. I have had the opportunity to play in the Champions League so I'm enjoying my life.”
Joining FC Porto, a grand institution on the continent, comes new pressures. However, speaking to Martinez, he knows exactly what is expected and appears to thrive in such a demanding environment.
“Here in Porto, we have to win every game because it’s a big club in Portugal and in the world so we have to fight for every game.
“This year is different because there is a pandemic so we don’t have supporters in the stadium. When they are back, to play for a team like Porto is always a pleasure. You have the pleasure to play for one of the biggest clubs in Europe. You have to make everything good because you have all of the people there and that’s the most important thing, you are at a big club.”
Martinez is enjoying playing alongside the likes of midfielder Sergio Oliveira, scorer of the stunning and vital free-kick against Juventus which secured FC Porto’s progression in the Champions League, and striker Moussa Marega who boasts 70 strikes for the club.
“It’s good, training with great players,” Martinez tells us. “Every player is a good player. We are at one of the biggest clubs so they always have good players. I’m enjoying it and learning a lot.”
One team-mate he is really taking wisdom from is Pepe. The 38-year-old was formidable in the triumph in Turin and when it comes to massive Champions League clashes, he has been there and done it, winning the competition three times during a decade with Real Madrid. The centre-back has also lifted six league titles and helped his country Portugal win Euro 2016.
Martinez relishes the challenge of facing Pepe in training and gaining knowledge, coming up against one of the best defenders of the 21st century.
“With Pepe, you can learn a little bit every day,” he revealed. “He’s had a great career and ten years with one of the best clubs in the world; being there (at Real Madrid) for ten years says much about him.
“The career he had with Portugal too, you can learn every day and also, his personality is good because he tries to help every player and shows what to do on the pitch and also off it. That’s the most important thing, his personality.”
So, we had to know, who are the other personalities in the Porto dressing room?
“Zaidu Sanusi,” he smiles, picking out the left-back, “He’s the funny one, he’s always joking with team-mates and gets on with everyone.” He’s jet-heeled as well, according to Martinez. “He’s too quick, he’s probably the quickest player I’ve seen in my life!”
And who’s the player who looks after his appearance the most?
“I have a few (names in mind) but I would say Mateus Uribe,” he laughs. “With the dress sense and also with the hair, he takes a lot of time to be ready.”
Being prepared and ready is what FC Porto do best. Discussing this Champions League campaign, Martinez often mentions being ‘prepared’ and ‘ready’ as we chat and sees meticulous planning as key to getting the better of a quality outfit like Juventus. However, before taking on Chelsea in the quarters, domestically, the Blue and Whites face Santa Clara on Saturday and that is where the team’s focus lies first and foremost. Only after that game, will they start to think about Thomas Tuchel’s Blues.
“Every rival will be difficult. We have a league game this weekend before playing the Champions League so we are focused on the league game, then we will see Chelsea and we are ready to play this game. We want to go to the next round and to the final but we know this will be a difficult game. We’ll be prepared, for sure.
“With the support of the staff and with all the players ready, I think it will be a good game (against Chelsea) but we will fight to make it to the next round.”
From West Ham and Oxford to Valladolid and Famalicao, Martinez has been waiting for this chance. He’s ready to take it, gunning for glory with one of the biggest clubs in Europe.
Toni Martinez is a New Balance ambassador - www.newbalance.co.uk/football