The list of players in the soccer world who’ve played against Lionel Messi and Neymar in their careers is sizable by now, but it’s still not all that long.
The list of players who’ve faced both superstars in the same year is even shorter.
And the list of players who’ve faced them while playing for their country is shorter still.
Union midfielder José Andrés Martínez is in that exclusive club. After facing Neymar at this summer’s Copa América in Brazil, Martínez dueled with Messi when Argentina visited Venezuela in a World Cup qualifier earlier this month.
“It was a beautiful experience for me, I enjoyed it so much,” Martínez told The Inquirer this week with help from a translator. “Any player who plays for their country does so with a lot of happiness and pride.”
Those games were the latest peaks in a remarkable rise for the 27-year-old from Maracaibo, Venezuela. When the Union signed Martínez in December 2019, he had earned one national team call-up the previous September, but had yet to play for the Vinotinto. Now he is a mainstay for club and country.
“In less than a year, my life has changed completely,” Martínez said. “I’m just thankful for the people that are there with me, the people that support me. All my success, all the things that I’ve achieved, I have to thank them for [that], and I dedicate my success to them.”
‘My love and my heart’
That support system helped Martínez adjust to a new country and the isolation that the pandemic has caused everyone, professional athletes included.
“I have people by my side in Philadelphia that have won my love and my heart,” he said. “If it were up to me, I’d play my entire career here in Philadelphia, and if I were to go to another club, I’d be wishing I could go back to Philadelphia. I love the city, I love the people, I love the atmosphere here in Philadelphia.”
Martínez is especially close with Sergio Santos, who like Martínez has raised his profile playing for the Union.
“He’s become a brother to me,” Martínez said. “We respect each other, we communicate a lot, not only on the field, but also off the field.”
Recently, the Union added a second Venezuelan player on the squad, Jesús Bueno. Martínez has taken the 22-year-old newcomer under his wing.
“He’s a good kid, he’s a great soccer player, and I hope he gets the chance to shine in the club,” Martínez said.
Bringing up another Venezuelan brought a big smile to Martínez’s face. This time, it was a player he might play against when the Union host Atlanta United on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m., Univision 65 and TUDN): Five Stripes star striker Josef Martínez. The two aren’t related, but they have built a strong bond.
Josef — you’ll hear him called by just his first name often on the national TV broadcast — has three goals in his last two games, nine in 21 this year, and a whopping 99 in 124 career games for Atlanta.
No one will be surprised if he scores his 100th goal in his 125th game for the club. But there’s a chance that won’t be Saturday. Josef has been battling an injury that Atlanta manager Gonzalo Pineda called “knee overload” on Thursday. Pineda told reporters in Atlanta that Martínez is day to day.
A friend and foe
The odds are Martínez will make the trip. He might not start, but the Union will expect him to play. Atlanta (9-7-9, 36 points) is just one point and one spot ahead of the seventh-place Union (9-7-8) in a jam-packed Eastern Conference playoff race.
“Although he’s been injured, he’s been scoring goals anyway,” José Martínez said of Josef. “Imagine if he wasn’t injured.”
The two men sit at the same table for meals when on national team duty, and José revealed they talked on the phone for an hour on Wednesday.
“About personal stuff and about soccer and about the game this weekend,” he said. “He’s a great, great player, he’s a humble person, and he’s someone that I take his advice very seriously.”
Oddly, they’ve only played against each other once in MLS: the Union’s epic 3-0 Champions League win in Atlanta on April 27. José was suspended for the Union’s home game in the series due to yellow card accumulation, and they were both at the Copa América during the Union’s regular-season game in Atlanta on June 20. The teams didn’t play each other last year because of the pandemic-altered MLS schedule.
“I know Atlanta United has been one of the best teams in MLS in the last few years, but the Philadelphia Union have also gained a lot of respect in the last few years,” José said. “I hope this game over the weekend is a good game, a healthy game for the fans, and may the best team on the field win.”