The centre-forward position in football is the most coveted. The reason is simple. A centre forward scores the most goals in a team and often gets all the plaudits. Almost every kid playing football wants to become a striker, but only few go on to succeed. The reason again is simple. It’s the most difficult position on a football pitch. Scoring a goal is, perhaps, the hardest thing to do in football.
While those few who make it might be superior in terms of skill, what truly sets them apart is the sheer desire to score goals.
In Indian football, good strikers have always been a rare commodity. Few have come and gone leaving their mark, but none of them quite left an impression like Nigeria’s Ranti Martins, the all-time leading goalscorer in Indian league football. Having spent 12 years playing his trade in Indian football, he notched up more than 200 goals.
After spells in Malaysia and the United States, Martins reportedly hung up his boots on Tuesday.
For him too, the separating factor was the hunger to find the back of the net.
“He could do anything to score goals. Absolutely anything. He was the most lethal box striker in Indian football,” Arnab Mondal, former India and East Bengal defender who was an opponent as well as a teammate of Martins told Scroll.in.
In his 12-year career in India, Martins was the top scorer in a season on seven occasions and with three different teams out of the five he played for.
He won five national league titles (two in erstwhile NFL and three I-League), one Federation Cup and one Durand Cup during his time in India, a trophy haul that was largely made possible due to his prowess in front of goal with various clubs.
“The team that Ranti played for always had a psychological advantage over the other team. This was true for every team he played for in India,” Mondal, Martin’s teammate at East Bengal said.
“He could score a goal at any time and knowing that kept the team morale up even when the team struggled. In crunch situations, Ranti took responsibility and delivered. It gave the team confidence and made opponents wary,” he added.
Doubts at Dempo
Nigeria was one of Indian football clubs’ favourite places to look out for strikers. So when Martins first arrived in India in 2004, he was seen as one of many forwards from the African nation trying to cut a career in India.
Armando Colaco was in search of a new striker for his Dempo side. On the advice of then captain Majek Bolaji, Colaco invited Martins for a trial. The Nigerian was strongly built but not as tall as some of his compatriots who had previously played in India. A shade below six feet, Martins wasn’t exactly the big target man. He was instead a livewire inside the box who could finish really well. Bolaji was convinced of his compatriot’s great goal-scoring ability despite his slightly different physical attributes from his predecessors.
But what Colaco saw in his Nigerian trainee, differed from his captain’s findings.
“We called him to Goa for trials, but I was left disappointed with him,” Colaco told Scroll.in.
“He was not up to it. I didn’t see the qualities in him that I was looking for. Maybe he was struggling to adapt to a new country. But after three weeks he started showing some good things and I understood what Bolaji was saying. I immediately signed him up,” he added.
It was a decision that would transform his own career as a coach and define the history of Dempo, a club that was finding its feet in the top division after suffering relegation a few years ago.
No looking back
Martins’ impact was immediate. The Goan club won the 2004 Federation Cup before going on to win their first NFL title in the same season. Their Nigerian import was at the heart of the winning run scoring 15 goals and finishing second in the charts behind Dudu Omagbemi.
There was no looking back for Martins as he finished top scorer in the 2005-’06 season with 13 goals before being joint top scorer the season after that, netting 16 times. He only managed 12 goals the season after but the contribution was telling as Dempo won the inaugural edition of the I-League.
He repeated his goal tally in the I-League next season, but his position as a top striker in Indian football was cemented thanks to his eight goals in the AFC Cup where he finished as the competition’s third-best scorer guiding Dempo to the semi-finals, the first Indian club to go that far.
His best years with the Goan club were in the 2010-’11 and 2011-’12 seasons when scored 28 and 32 goals respectively. The latter remains a record for the number of goals scored by a single player in an Indian football league season.
A part of the improvement in his goal tally was due to the potent partnership he developed with attacking midfielder Beto, but it was also down to his willingness to constantly improve himself.
“Ranti was a top player coming from a top footballing nation where he had played with great players, but his attitude towards the game was excellent,” Colaco said.
“Every single day, in every single training session, he was out to prove his worth. He was extremely determined to score goals even in training. Initially, he struggled while tracking back and defending but he also incorporated that into his game later. He never stopped learning,” he added.
A nightmare for defenders
Even as he moved to Prayag United and later to East Bengal, his goals never dried up. He terrorised defenders for a good decade in Indian football.
“Ranti was brilliant in the air, but he was equally good on the ground. He constantly moved and it was very difficult to predict where he would go. He was dangerous on set-plays. Ranti would punish you if you afforded him even the slightest of space and time. He was an absolute nightmare to play against,” Mondal said.
The Nigerian kept the opponent defenders on toes and rival coaches scratching their heads.
“In every team meeting before we played his team, Ranti was the first point we discussed. The coaches prepared strategies and plans to stop him and we discussed at length. Even after that, he found a way to score goals,” Mondal added.
Playing for East Bengal in 2015, Martins was still Indian football’s top dog, a decade after he first won the golden boot. He scored 20 goals for the Red and Golds that season, five of which came again former club Dempo. In a 5-1 win for the Kolkata side, Martins scored all five.
“Scoring a goal is a lot harder than it seems. But he made it look very easy,” Mondal said.
“That was a time when Indian football wasn’t as professional as it’s today, but he was ahead of times. He knew how to keep fit and worked harder than everyone else even when he was the best,” he added.
It has been four years since he last kicked a football in India, but only FC Goa’s Ferran Corominas has shown the potential to eclipse Martin’s achievements as an overseas striker. But even the Spaniard has a long way to go to match the Nigerian’s rich haul of goals.
His consistency over a decade was remarkable but the number of personal and team accolades he won testifies the importance of his goals in the teams’ success. His record may or may not be broken in the future, but his legacy is safe. He will always be Indian football’s ultimate fox in the box.