Saturday 28 July 2018, 07:02

Mature Martinez ready for the challenge

  • Martinez the undoubted star striker of Albirroja U-20 side

  • France 2018 will be her fourth FIFA world finals

  • “I’m going there to compete and to make history”

Paraguay’s Jessica Martinez was only 14 when she took part in her first world finals, the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup Costa Rica 2014. In an interview with a few months before the tournament, she said: “Representing your country is the ultimate and I’m dreaming of going a lot further yet.”

Speaking nearly five years on from those comments, she could not help but laugh at how far she has ended up going.

“Obviously, I never imagined I’d be playing in my fourth World Cup at the age of 18,” the centre-forward said, in conversation once more with before travelling to France for the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup.

In between times Martinez represented her country at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Canada 2014 and the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup Jordan 2016. Remarkably, she was her country’s leading goalscorer in all four of the world finals qualifying competitions she has taken part in.

“I’m proud of that achievement,” she said. “I haven’t just held it together; I’ve got better, and I’ve still got a long way to go.”

In that first interview Martinez spoke of how she began playing football with her two brothers, how she thought her mother would not support her – though she was wrong in that – and how the prejudice she has faced has made her stronger.

Looking back, she sees herself as a very different person: “I’ve changed in every way, on a physical, personal and mental level. I’m a different Jessica, one who wants to go to France to compete and to make history with Paraguay.”

Her World Cup story so far

"In 2014, everything was new"

  • U-17 Women’s South American Championships: six goals in seven matches (second-highest scorer in the competition)

  • U-17 Women’s World Cup: no goals in three matches

“Costa Rica was an amazing experience but things didn’t work out for us, and I knew I wasn’t strong enough. I realised I was lacking a lot of the things you need to compete at that level.”

  • U-20 Women’s South American Championships: five goals in seven matches (second-highest scorer in the competition)

  • U-20 Women’s World Cup: no goals in three matches

“In Canada I really noticed the physical difference. All the players were big, strong and had a lot of attitude. And even though I was better prepared for it because of what I’d experienced at the U-17 World Cup, it was still very tough for me.”

“In 2016, I had a different job to do”

  • U-17 Women’s South American Championships: ten goals in seven matches (second-highest scorer in the competition)

  • U-17 Women’s World Cup: no goals in three matches

“It was great to go to Jordan because the U-20s had failed to qualify for their world finals.

“I was playing in the first division with Olimpia by that time and I felt more mature. I was making better decisions. I also had a different role: to speak to and help the new players, who made up most of the team. I was the captain and I learned to be more of a leader.

“I did more dribbling but I could still tell there was still a big physical difference. Jordan 2016 helped me in the Copa Libertadores Femenina, which we won that year with Sportivo Limpeno.”

Jessica Martinez of Paraguay 

“2018 has to be our year”

  • U-20 Women’s South American Championships: seven goals in seven matches (third-highest scorer in the competition)

“Playing with Santos in a competitive league like Brazil’s helped me become a more combative player. Physically I’m better prepared than ever. I need to be because, like everyone else, I have to get back and defend when we’re not attacking.

“That’s been one of the biggest changes in my game. I used to do my own thing more but now I’m a better team-mate. I’ve learned that I need to play as part of a unit, which is the only way we’re going to have a good World Cup.

“Tactically we’re more flexible. We always used to play with a 4-4-2, but now we can switch to a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2. The aim is to get out of the group and keep on going.

“We’ve got Spain, USA and Japan in our group. It’s tough but not impossible. We have faith.

“I know I haven’t scored any goals in World Cups yet; they all come in the South American Championships. I’m more patient now and I think the goal will come in France.”

An inspirational figure

France 2018 will see Epifania Benitez have the honour of becoming the first woman to coach a Paraguay team at a women’s World Cup.

“It’s inspirational because it will help others to study to become coaches, especially players who want to stay in the game when they retire,” said Martinez.

“On a personal level, it gives me a different type of confidence because there are things that are easier to talk about with another woman. You have that understanding.”