Wednesday 02 June 2021, 08:53

Marcelo: I want to give the Bolivian people World Cup euphoria

  • Marcelo Martins relives becoming Bolivia’s all-time top scorer

  • The former Brazil U-20 striker believes they can qualify for Qatar 2022

  • He discusses selling hamburgers and arguing with Lionel Messi

Marcelo Martins flopped on to his hotel bed and removed from his pocket a mobile phone that had been beeping as relentlessly as Sputnik 1. “I felt like I was living in another world,” he recalled.

The hulking striker’s emotions were stratospheric as he watched the video messages in his family’s WhatsApp group. He felt immeasurable pride. He felt incontrovertible justification.

Every hamburger Marcelo had sold as a kid to afford his bus fare to training had been worth it. The decision he had made as a 19-year-old to ignore his Brazilian, Seleção-mad dad – Marcelo was the No9 for Brazil’s U-20s at the time – and pursue a senior international career with Bolivia had been vindicated.

A third goal in as many FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifiers had made the 33-year-old his country’s all-time leading marksman. He was, and still is, ecstatic at that piece of history. He will not, however, be satisfied until he makes another.

Marcelo desperately wants to play at the World Cup, and he believes Bolivia will be there next year. Ahead of La Verde’s clashes with Venezuela and Chile, the Cruzeiro player chats to about choosing between Bolivia and Brazil, the former’s start to Qatar 2022 qualifying, his belief they can reach the global finals, his spat with Lionel Messi and breaking the aforementioned record. You turned seven one day after Bolivia’s first World Cup game since Brazil 1950. Do you remember anything from their USA 1994 campaign?

Marcelo Martins: I don’t remember too much, but I remember some of the games. There was a huge buzz in Bolivia at the time. ‘El Diablo’ Etcheverry, ‘Platini’ Sanchez, Carlos Trucco, they were players who took Bolivia to the World Cup, legends in my country. Even today people still go on about ‘94. It’s crazy when you mention the World Cup. We haven’t managed to qualify again since ’94, so we really want it to happen again. The Bolivian people always call for another qualification. I think it would be absolutely wonderful because so much bad stuff happens in our country and it would give so much happiness to be able to participate in a World Cup again.

Your father is a football-mad Brazilian, but you were born and brought up in Bolivia. Did you support A Seleção or La Verde?

I was always split, because my father is Brazilian and my mother is Bolivian. When Brazil played, I supported Brazil. When Bolivia played, I supported Bolivia. In Brazil I used to idolise Ronaldo ‘Fenômeno’, who has always been an example for me. In Bolivia, ‘El Diablo’ Etcheverry. He was always a benchmark in Bolivian football, and I always loved watching his football. I always wanted the best for both sides. But after I made my Bolivia debut, things changed a lot.

As a kid, you worked at a football stadium…

I had a really difficult upbringing. I had to grab whatever work I could from an early age. When I was 13 I joined a local football club and needed the money for the bus fare to get to training. There was an opportunity to work at the stadium, selling hamburgers, pasties, Coca-Cola. That’s when I really fell in love with football. I was selling things to be able to do what I most loved, which was to play football. And at the same time I fell in love with being at the stadium, the atmosphere, [watching] football. The only problem was that I also loved hamburgers and sometimes I couldn’t resist eating one, which I’d have to pay for! (laughs) It was funny because I was only in the youth ranks for a year-and-a-half and then, at 15 years old, I turned professional.

And your first salary almost didn’t last long, right?

(laughs) I’m very lucky to have a father who has always been a great example. My father has always supported me greatly with football. Since I was ten he was always encouraging me to become a footballer. I went to Vitoria in Bahia and my father went with me.

At first I didn’t have a contract, but then one day I suddenly received 500 reais (around $200 at the time). I went to the mall with my father and I saw these wonderful Diesel jeans. I fell in love with them. I can recall them to this day. Beautiful. They cost exactly 500 reais. I was desperate to buy them, but my father said, ‘Mate, listen to me. Forget about these jeans and focus on training, dedicating yourself to football. Because if you make it as a footballer, you’ll be able to spend 100 dollars like it is ten reais, you’ll be able to buy all the jeans you want.’ I reluctantly left the mall without the jeans, but guess what? My dad was right. I now have a wardrobe with over 200 pairs of jeans! (laughs)

You played for Brazil at U-18 and U-20 level. How was that experience?

I cannot even describe how proud it made me. For me, a Bolivian, to be in the Brazilian youth national team, was an unbelievable feeling. My dad was exceptionally proud. Brazil has so, so many players. To wear the canary-yellow shirt, the No9 like Ronaldo, was an extraordinary feeling. I was top scorer in two competitions, but then the senior Bolivian national team came calling and God had a plan for me – to make history with Bolivia.

You were only 19 when you decided to represent Bolivia. How difficult a decision was that?

It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. My dad was urging me to stick with Brazil, to keep working hard and my chance would come with the senior Seleção. And the entire rest of my family was saying, ‘You have to come and play for Bolivia, you will be able to get Bolivia to the World Cup. You will be a benchmark for future generations. Kids will want to follow in your footsteps.’ That was a huge motivating factor – to be an example for future generations – but it was still really tough to let go of the dream of playing for the [senior] Seleção.

Moving on to Qatar 2022 qualifying, you missed the first game, but Bolivia gave Argentina and Ecuador really close games in narrow defeats, and drew 2-2 in Paraguay. How would you evaluate Bolivia’s start to Qatar 2022 qualifying?

We could have won the last three games. We were leading in all three games. We didn’t keep our concentration and keep playing the way we were. It’s difficult [for opponents] to play at altitude – we didn’t take advantage of this against Argentina and Ecuador. It’s frustrating because I feel like we’ve thrown seven points away. But we still have it all to play for. We have two huge games now – if we win we’re in a strong position in the race to qualify for the World Cup.

Despite the results, the performances against three teams all in the top four in the standings must give the team confidence?

Without doubt. We’ve watched the games together and seen that we were playing well against and beating high-level opposition. That shows us what we can do. We’re analysing the attention lapses and mistakes to make sure we don’t repeat them.

What do you think of forthcoming opponents Venezuela and Chile?

I’ve never played against a [CONMEBOL] national team that has been easy or that I thought was going to be easy. I think Venezuela have a really good, competitive team. They’re really quick once they win back the ball, so we have to be really aware of this. Chile have made their own history, they’ve come on so much in recent years. But they’re also undergoing a generational change. It’s never easy when you change from one set of players who know each other to another. So I think we have to take advantage of certain situations in the game to emerge victorious. Getting to a World Cup is really difficult, but if we beat Venezuela it will fill us with confidence going into the Chile game. We’ll give it our everything because the World Cup is the dream of myself and all my team-mates.

Do you believe Bolivia can qualify for Qatar 2022?

I firmly believe in it. We have a wonderful chance this time round. I will give it everything until the very end. I want to go down in the history of football in my country. It’s a huge dream to take Bolivia to the World Cup, to give the people of my country the euphoria that would bring. And it would be a dream to play in the World Cup.

Pele, Messi, Luis Suarez, Alexis Sanchez, Paolo Guerrero, Falcao, Roque Santa Cruz, Agustin Delgado and Enner Valencia, Salomon Rondon, Marcelo Moreno... how did it feel to become Bolivia’s all-time leading marksman and join an elite bracket of players to be top scorer for a South American country?

I’m very, very proud. I’ve worked hard for 13 years to be able to be the top goalscorer for my country. It’s not easy, and it will never be easy, to score goals. It’s the most difficult thing in football. So to be in this group – strikers who were lethal in world football – it’s an immense honour. And I plan on scoring a lot more. I’m young and I have a lot more years in me. I’m physically fit and I have great hunger. You can be sure that I have a lot of goals left in me.

How did you feel after the game the night you broke the record in Asuncion?

I couldn’t believe what was happening in the dressing room. My phone was going off. My WhatsApp was flooded with messages, everyone congratulating me. My family were sending me videos. It was a feeling of inexplicable pride, of reaping the reward for everything I had worked hard for throughout my career. It was a unique moment, a moment to thank God. I was so happy. My team-mates were also so happy for me, and I have to thank them greatly because it’s because of them that I managed to become my country’s all-time leading goalscorer.

When I got back to my hotel room, I finally had the calm to go through and read the messages and videos on my WhatsApp. I have a WhatsApp group with my family. I remember watching their video messages over and over and being so emotional. I felt like I was living in another world. The feeling I had in the hotel that night is one that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Can you tell us about the little altercation you had with Lionel Messi?

(laughs) In football, sometimes things happen on the pitch that the media doesn’t see – an insult, a dirty challenge, or you’re defending a team-mate. Messi’s a phenomenon. I have huge admiration for all he’s achieved at Barcelona, for everything he represents for the Argentinian national team. But in these moments it doesn’t matter if it’s Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ronaldo ‘Fenômeno’ – you’re defending the colours of your country and you’re agitated. There was a misunderstanding in the heat of the moment, but it was no big deal – these things happen all the time.

Speaking of legendary players, who’s the best player you’ve seen in your lifetime?

‘Fenômeno’. ‘Fenômeno’ and Cristiano Ronaldo. I was also a big fan of Gabriel Batistuta. The way he scored goals was something else.

Finally, who do you think will win Qatar 2022?

Brazil are always the favourites. They’re lethal. It’s so difficult to play against them. They have players who are feared. They have so many players who can beat their marker. And everybody knows they’re the five-time world champions – that carries huge weight. I think this Belgium team could do it and Argentina are always dangerous. At the moment, I’d say it’s between those three teams.