S hortly after 2 a.m. on a balmy September night in 2012, a drunk man climbed over the fence of Athletic Club’s Lezama training center in the eastern outskirts of Bilbao.
Inside the compound, he headed straight towards the first-team dressing room, intent on raiding a particular locker containing prized possessions. But the stumbling intruder was stopped by a heroic security guard and wrestled to the ground. The two men continued tussling on the floor for a few more seconds under the starry night until the club employee, to his surprise, recognized the would-be thief as a recently departed player.
It was Javi Martínez.
Yes, it’s true … it was me.
But almost every other part of this funny little crime caper, as told by certain Spanish newspapers at the time, is wrong. It makes me laugh thinking about it now, years later.
So let me tell you what really happened, going back to the very beginning of the story. My story.
I grew up in Ayegui, a small mountain town in Navarre, in the northern part of Spain. It has a larger a population now, but when I was a child, there was barely 1,000 people. I started, just like everyone else, playing football with my friends in the sports center, not far from the town church.
Now, my mum … she was very serious about education. So I used to have a little trick that I would pull on her, actually. She would want me to stay inside all the time, doing my homework or my chores, so I’d say, “Oh Mum, I have to do something at the school today. Yes, yes. A very important thing at the school!”
Then, of course, I’d go and play football with my friends for hours on end.
At the age of five, my father took me to C.D Berceo, a team in Logroño, 30 minutes by car to the southwest. My brother Álvaro, who is nine years older than me, had started his footballing education with them, and my father had been pleased with his progress. He decided I should try it, too. Until then, I had only played with my friends. But there I was, five-years old, already playing on a team.
I remember that the only thing I would do at first was to get on the ball and run. I didn’t do any technical or tactical things. Everyone said that I just ran all over and had really long legs — they were really long and skinny. My dad used to say I had “two sticks hanging out of my backside.”
At 10, I had a trial at Osasuna, in Pamplona, the capital of the Navarre province, right at the heart of my country and the community I was born in. Luckily, I was picked for the team and ended up playing there for seven years. It was a real privilege to be a scholar there, as Osasuna has one of the best youth systems in Spain. There are many top-level players who have been developed there, such as Raúl García, César Azpilicueta, Nacho Monreal and Mikel Merino.
When I turned 17, Athletic showed an interest in me. Moving to Bilbao was a crucial step for me. They wanted me for the first team even though I was only 17. They were so keen that they were even willing to pay a €6 million release clause for me. Compared to the football of today, that’s perhaps not that much, but considering that I was then a 17-year old who had never played in First Division before, it was a considerable risk they were taking on me.
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My family were big Athletic fans. Álvaro had played for them for four years as a teenager, and my parents would travel from our home town every weekend to go watch him play. I remember wanting to become just like him. I wanted to play in those games, at that level. He was my role model, my motivation and my idol. I didn’t have any star players as idols, even though I really liked players like Zinedine Zidane and Patrick Vieira. No, for me, it was my brother.
He was the most influential person in my career, without a doubt. When I had to leave my family and my hometown to play for Athletic, the only demand I had when we negotiated the move was to have my brother come with me. Because for me to live so far away from home, I needed that support — someone who could act as my mother, father, brother, and friend, a bit of everything. At the time, it was a big sacrifice for him because he was playing in Catalunya, at Figueras in the Third Division. He was ready to leave it all to come with me, and he signed for a team near Bilbao so he could play football, too. I relied on him to help me through the tough times. He even cooked for me in the beginning. I had no clue — I didn’t even know how to fry an egg. Honestly, without his help and support, I’m sure I would not have made it to where I am today.
At first, professional football was a very hard learning curve. My first year at Athletic coincided with one of the club’s worst years. We played really poorly. Everything was negative. Athletic, who had never been relegated to the Second Division in its history, was in real danger of going down. We were in the relegation zone until the last two rounds, and salvation only came on the final match day. As a 17-year-old, I had a rough time living with that kind of anxiety. I wish that amount of stress on no player.
The best advice Álvaro gave me was to never look at football as a business. He said, “The only way to deal with these constant worries of Did I play well today? and Did I have a good game? that we all have as footballers is to ask yourself a different question: Did I enjoy myself playing today? If you can stop for a minute and respond by saying, Yes, I really enjoyed today, then 99.9% of the time, you will have played a good game. And if you didn’t enjoy it or didn’t feel comfortable, then you have played poorly.”
It seems so simple, but it’s true: as footballers, we have to enjoy playing. Or else what are you doing it for? That’s what I did when I was five-years old, playing in my hometown with my friends all those times I “escaped” from home to play football. I try to apply that same principle now. I still don’t want to do my chores! (Don’t tell my mother). Only now I am escaping to the Allianz Arena.
If I were to give advice to my 17-year-old self, it would be to to take care of the loved ones who are there for you at all times, and to enjoy both football and life. Because it all goes by very fast. After six good years at Athletic, Bayern Munich came calling.
It was actually quite complicated. There were a few clubs interested in me, but we had reached two finals with Athletic under Marcelo Bielsa — the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey — and unfortunately we didn’t win either of them. I told myself that I couldn’t really leave that way, and that I should stay and make sure the club won a trophy. But in football, things can change from one day to the next. Today you are on top of the world, and then you have a bad month or two, and suddenly you are at the bottom of the pile and nobody wants you anymore. I knew that I had a unique opportunity to move on after having such a good season and that I had to take it. It was the right moment.
When Athletic insisted that the buy-out clause of €40 million had to be activated, only two interested clubs remained. One of the clubs who really wanted to sign me was English, and the other one was German. Financially, their offers were quite similar. Actually, the English team offered me more. But when Bayern Munich asked if I wanted to come to the city and play for this club, for this team… Oh, man. It was huge. There was no doubt that I wanted to be a Bayern player.
Because the transfer was only finalized very late in August, I had no time to say goodbye to teammates and collect my belongings from the Athletic training ground until the international break. And that’s when that curious incident at Lezama happened, albeit not remotely in the dramatic way it was reported at the time.
I had called the club to arrange going there at around noon, but they said no. They wouldn’t let me go before training because they thought it might create some bad vibes. That’s fair enough — I had no problem with that at all. But my boots were still in there, and my laptop and my clothes. Everything was still in my locker.
I had been in the city during the day, so at around 9:30 or so (not 2 a.m.), I went there to pick up all my stuff. I rang the bell for security to open for about 15 minutes, but no one came. There was some construction work being done at the time, so I guess the bell wasn’t working. I called the team manager, but he didn’t pick up his phone. I knew from my years at Lezama that there was another access point, closer to the changing rooms, so I walked over there, calling for the security guard, Iker, to let me in.
“Iker, Iker, please open up,” I shouted.
He came out, opened up and let me in. I picked up the stuff and left.
And that … was it. Nothing else happened.
Imagine my reaction the next day, when they were saying that I had gone there drunk and that I had fought with the security guard. Madre mia! Someone really made up a good story there. Now I can just laugh about it. Back then? I was just stunned.
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It’s a hard lesson. You spend years of your life at a club, giving everything you have. And then at the end, things aren’t always portrayed in the best light. But I’ll always be proud of my time at Athletic. It was like my family.
The interesting thing I soon learned after moving to Bavaria was that Bayern and Athletic, for all their differences in size, culture and so on, are also quite similar. They’re two very family-oriented clubs. Bayern helps you with everything, with any problems you might have. I remember one of the first days I got to Munich, the club sent some materials over to tell us the program for the week, and everything was in German.
I kind of panicked for a second, like, What have you done, Javi? I didn’t know any German. I had no idea what anything said or where I was supposed to be. But then I called someone from the club, and probably with a laugh, they told me where to go. Thankfully, I learned English as a kid from watching American movies with the subtitles on, and everyone at the club speaks English.
In the first weeks, the Latin players in the Bayern dressing room also really helped me adapt. Claudio Pizarro was very supportive, and there were also the Brazilians: Rafinha, Dante, Luis Gustavo. Without them, it would have been much harder for me to settle.
I knew all about Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry before I got here, but the one player who surprised me most was David Alaba. When I arrived in 2012, he wasn’t the star he is now. I personally didn’t really know of him. I remember the first time training with him, I was so impressed with his strength and his quality. He was the one player who really surprised me. I could tell he was going to be a very big part of our success.
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That first season in Munich, we lifted that beauty of a trophy, the European Cup. It’s hard to describe the joy of winning the Champions League. It’s the reason I came here, and the thing that still drives all of us. Right now, with Jupp Heynckes back in charge, I feel good, I feel that I’m important for the team, I feel comfortable playing in midfield, and I’m sure that I can help the team. Everyone feels phenomenal right now. We have momentum. But we absolutely have to keep our feet on the ground and keep working, as things change so quickly. It was only a few weeks ago that we suffered a bad defeat, losing 3-0 in Paris. When something like that happens, it’s important to stay cool and keep believing in your abilities (and perhaps to not read the papers for a few days).
We all know that the quality is there — you don’t lose it. You simply work harder and fight more. We didn’t go crazy or freak out. We focussed on the training, and we cleared our heads, and that was it. I knew we would come back. Defeating PSG 3-1 in Munich was validation of our hard work and spirit, but now the challenge is to go on and be well prepared for April and May — the time you really have to be in a good place as a team. We all want that feeling of holding the European Cup once again. It is indescribable.
As I said, life moves so fast. It’s hard for me to believe that I have been in Munich for five years now. When my grandchildren google my name someday, 40 or 50 years from now, what will they learn? Perhaps they will read the crazy newspaper stories about their grandpa, the bandit of Bilbao. That would be quite funny, actually. If I had my say, I’d like them to read that Javi Martínez was a hard worker, that he always gave his all, that he always faced things head on. But, above all, that he did everything possible to be a good footballer and to make his parents and his brother proud.
Maybe, hopefully, they will read that Grandpa was a two-time, or even three-time winner of the Champions League. That would be pretty good for a kid from a mountain town in Navarre.
I don’t know what the future holds, but for now, you will have to excuse me. I must be going. I have a very important thing at school.