The dream is familiar, but the pursuit has taken Sebastian Martinez to foreign soil.
Martinez, an 18-year-old Caymanian driven to become a professional football player, is currently suiting up for Leixoes S.C. in Portugal and rounding out his skill day-by-day and game-by-game. This weekend, though, Martinez was home in Cayman to visit friends and tell them about his journey.
The challenge of living abroad is nothing new for the youngster, who played at England’s Swindon Town F.C. on an apprenticeship contract before signing in Portugal. At his last stop, Martinez lived with his agent and heard English – his native language – both on the pitch and in his daily interactions.
That comfort zone has been completely upended now. Martinez, who studied Spanish in school, is learning Portuguese and living with his youthful teammates. Everything about Portugal has been an exciting adventure, and Martinez said parts of his new home remind him of his time in Cayman.
“Life in Portugal has been easy for me to adapt to. It’s different from other places in Europe because the people are less hectic and not always in a rush,” Martinez said via email. “Communication has not been a huge problem for me because a lot of the population also speaks English.
“Many of my teammates and the coaching staff are multilingual which makes my training and interactions much easier. Although Portuguese is a difficult language, it shares similarities with Spanish, which I have learned throughout my time in school, and I have been learning more and more each day. My new teammates help me improve my Portuguese and I help them better their English.”
Martinez, in some respects, has been working toward his goal for at least a third of his life.
He left Cayman as a 12-year-old to play for Swindon Town’s academy. His transition there was eased by the presence of his agent, Fitzroy Simpson. Simpson, a former member of Jamaica’s national team who played with Manchester City of the Premier League during his distinguished professional career, has been there to offer guidance and encouragement along with vital tricks of the trade.
For six years, Martinez lived with the Simpsons, building a close bond with Fitzroy’s son, Jordan, who has since gone on to sign with the Forest Green Rovers in England. Portugal made more sense for Martinez, said Fitzroy Simpson, but it caused some anxious moments in his household.
“I have two sons and a daughter, and there’s no difference,” he said of his relationship with Martinez. “Sebastian is like a third son. I’ve always had a belief in him, as I do in all my clients, but to see him make this step to Portugal was hard on my wife. She treats him like a son, and she knows that like her biological sons, they have to fly the nest. He lived in my own home, and he treats it like his home. It will always be his home, and I don’t care if he’s 30 years old. My wife is adamant that it’s Sebastian’s room.”
On the field
With Martinez a two-hour flight away from Simpson’s home, football is the only consideration.
On the field, he fits best as a classic No. 10, said Simpson, and he’s most effective when allowed to play a creative role as an advanced central midfielder. He can also play as an attacker split out to either wing, and the Portuguese style of play could allow Martinez to blossom quickly.
“I’m expecting Sebastian at the age of 20 or 21 to be a major household name in Europe,” said Simpson. “He just has to mature into understanding the game the Portuguese way. He’s re-adapting to freedom, but Sebastian has been well drilled and well disciplined. He’ll try to take on some defensive duties, but the coaches say, ‘No, we only want you for expression.’ It’s quite the marriage made in heaven for me.”
For that marriage to work, Martinez will have to climb the organizational ladder.
Martinez, who signed a two-year contract, is playing for the B team for Leixoes S.C., and if he succeeds there, he could be routed to the club’s first team by next season.
At that point, he’d be playing against the B teams of major clubs such as Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Sporting Clube de Portugal and Sporting Clube de Braga. Simpson said that Benfica has the first option in case Leixoes decides to sell Martinez to another team, but nobody is in a rush for that to happen.
“It’s going to be time and patience,” said Simpson. “If you look across the world globally, there just aren’t that many 18-year-olds playing senior football week-in and week-out. We have a plan for Sebastian, and he’s got set goals to be assessed every six months. The first six months’ goal is to adapt to the new environment and have a full understanding of what the coaches want technically.”
Martinez got an early look at the club’s top players this summer, when he worked out with the first team before splitting into the B team. Leixoes finished 17th in Liga Pro – the second tier of Portugese football – and narrowly avoided being relegated last year, but it is currently tied for fourth place with Porto II this season. If Leixoes finishes in the top two, it can move up to Portugal’s Primeira Liga next year.
While he’s with the B team, Martinez will get to test himself against other players his age. But if he moves up, he’ll have to play against grown men all competing for promotion up the football ladder.
“All my life I’ve been accustomed to playing against players bigger than myself,” said Martinez. “It provides me with a challenge and opportunity to work on my physical attributes. The players of the first team give good guidance and help in my development as a footballer. Playing football is about more than just technical aspects and training with the experienced professionals of the first team helps me improve my tactical understanding and decision-making because of the quicker speed of play.”
Martinez, pressed on all sides from players who want to carve out the same future he’s aiming for, can shoulder his own ambitions and also those of his homeland. Simpson said that Leixoes S.C. would never think about stopping Martinez from the opportunity to play internationally for Cayman.
A path for Cayman youths
That’s one of the reasons he came home this weekend. Martinez hopes to share his success with his Cayman youth teammates and also with the Cayman Islands Football Association, but more importantly, he’s ready to show the next generation that they can follow in his footsteps.
“I don’t think of myself as a great inspiration, but I know what I do has an influence on younger Caymanians,” he said of blazing a football trail. “It’s important that all young Caymanian athletes know they can achieve their dream and I hope my journey encourages others to start their own. It gives me confidence to know that I’m laying a pathway for other young footballers to follow.”
“He knows the country’s behind him,” added Simpson. “Sebastian is a shining light for Cayman. There are some talented boys there. I’ve seen them personally. But Sebastian is proving that it can be done. And he is a very proud Caymanian. Every time the national team calls, he’s the first on the plane.”