Cuco Martina: Joining Everton, Wow, It Was A Dream

In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme for Saturday's meeting with Manchester City, Cuco Martina talks about emerging from “the darkest period of my life” this year, jubilation over joining the Club 12 months after a potential Goodison move fell down in 2016, changing his mum’s life following a transfer in Holland nine years ago, and a nervous and difficult beginning in England.

“Cucito, in Dutch, is a term for a naughty boy,” says Cuco Martina, who is describing the family tradition for assigning seemingly inexplicable nicknames.

“I didn’t hear really well when my mother was speaking,” Martina laughs. “So I was Cucito. As I got older, Cucito became Cuco.

“Even my mail is addressed to Cuco. Not Rhu-endly, always Cuco.”

Rhu-endly Aurelio Jean-Carlo Martina is happy again. The 18 months without a club after leaving Everton in June 2020, he says, “was the darkest period of my life”.

“It was so painful, some days I was almost crying, thinking, ‘Does nobody believe in me?” continues Martina.

“I was training my backside off every day, sometimes twice a day.

“Some days, I didn’t want to wake up. 

“My mum told me, ‘Get up every morning and train. God has something for you and you need to believe. If you don’t believe, you will keep sinking’.

“Religion helped, too. I could believe in something else.

“If I didn’t have this…” Martina leaves that sentence hanging in the air.

“But my family and God helped me through the darkest period of my life.”

A shard of light arrived late last year when Kees van Wonderen, manager of Go Ahead Eagles and Martina’s old coach at FC Twente, invited the defender to train with the Eredivisie club.

“It is not about the money, I want the passion again,” says Martina, who earned a deal until the end of the season.

“My teammates couldn’t understand why I was smiling every day in training.

“I said, ‘You can’t imagine the pleasure; to be involved again, to play games, to train, to feel the cramp, to sweat’.

“I felt I like I was 12 again.”

Martina cites the age of 12 because it transports him back to his first experiences of playing football on full-size, grass pitches.

Growing up in Rotterdam, he would follow his brother’s sporting lead, tagging along to classes in breakdancing and Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art.

Cuco Martina
It was so painful, some days I was almost crying, thinking, ‘Does nobody believe in me?'

Martina, then, is grateful to the nephew who hosted a birthday party and “was virtually in tears, begging me to play football outside”.

A game unfolded on a small playground where a youth-team coach from Feyenoord, attending a separate birthday celebration, asked if his twin sons could join in.

“He started watching and scouted me there and then,” says Martina.

Martina defaulted to a forward position back then. He would see Ronaldinho “playing street football on the pitch” and fancy doing the same.

Feyenoord ushered him back down the field, moulding a tenacious defender, but let Martina go at 16.

“My mum always told me to concentrate on school, but I enjoyed football and I’m not the type of guy who can focus on two things,” laughs Martina.

“I sacrificed a lot, you want to hang out with friends and party and stay out late and eat McDonald’s.

“Hard work is 80 per cent of making it.

“But not many youth players broke through at Feyenoord… for me, that step was huge at the time.”

Martina joined RBC Roosendaal in the Dutch second division. He played three seasons in the first team from 18 and had just signed a new two-year deal when the club went bankrupt in 2011.

“So many things went through my head,” begins Martina, “including what my mum said about my studies.

“You have a two-year contract, then you are nothing.

“I worried I might have to go back to school, or work and play amateur.”

RKC Waalwijk interrupted Martina’s procrastinating by offering a lifeline that he clutched for all he was worth.

The defender – versatile, persevering and willing – did so well for the top division team that manager Ruud Brood wanted to take Martina with him when he left for Roda JC in summer 2012.

New Waalwijk boss Erwin Koeman counselled against an impulsive decision, with Martina spying an opportunity to change his family’s lives at a stroke.

“I told Erwin, ‘I am not from a rich family and if I accept this offer, I can help them’,” says Martina.

“He promised that if I stayed, a bigger club would offer much more.

“I believed in him.”

Martina would remain with Waalwijk for one more season before joining FC Twente, despite fears the transfer would blow up when manager Steve McClaren left for Derby County.

“Erwin Koeman said: ‘I told you…  but this isn’t the move I meant, that will come for you’,” says Martina, whose Twente side finished third in his first season.

“Playing for Twente, I thought, ‘I can take care of my mum’.

“She raised three children by herself, working two or three jobs to put food on the table.

“Now she could stop working and be more involved in my life, come to see me play. I was so happy.

“It gave me so much power to know if I did well, I could make my mum’s life better.”

Erwin Koeman went to Southampton with brother Ronald in 2015 and acknowledged Martina’s congratulatory text.

Then silence for “a couple of weeks”, until the eve of pre-season.

“He called and said, ‘Are you ready for this move I told you about’,” says Martina.

“I was in shock. ‘The Premier League, really?’

“I flew to Southampton the next day and signed the deal.

“I was so nervous on the flight and doing my medical, even just talking, because I didn’t speak English well.”

Martina left home only after joining Twente and, even then, was one hour from friends and family.

The wider separation in England was difficult initially – Martina felt “alone” and struggled with the language – and compounded by a paucity of action, with first-choice right-back Cedric Soares immovable.

But come Boxing Day, Ronald Koeman, spooked by a poor run of form, opted for a shake-up.

That meant Martina getting his first start, at home to Arsenal.

“I was thinking, ‘Why against Arsenal?’” says Martina, his tone exasperated.

“I started Googling their players.

“Olivier Giroud, Petr Cech, Theo Walcott – I played with them on PlayStation.

“That week was so hard for me. But the day before, Ronald Koeman told me, ‘Don’t be nervous, just do your stuff. If we lose, it doesn’t matter’.”

The game at St Mary’s Stadium was 19 minutes old when Martina’s swerving 30-yard, outside-of-the-boot strike, started beyond Cech’s right post before finishing in the corner of the flummoxed goalkeeper’s net. 

“There was so much power and anger in the shot – anger because I’d not played after so much effort,” says Martina, who had only 108 minutes of Premier League football prior to his full debut.

“When I scored, all the pressure went away. It gave me so much confidence.

“My family and friends were in the stadium because they were visiting for Christmas, so it was even more special.”

Martina featured regularly in the second half of the campaign and played in victories over Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.

Manager Koeman departed for Everton in the summer but failed with a move for Martina, who was marginalised under new Southampton boss Claude Puel.

Cuco Martina
There was so much power and anger in the shot – anger because I’d not played after so much effort.

“I had a medical with Everton and stayed at the Hilton in Liverpool for nearly two weeks,” says Martina.

“Southampton signed [right-back] Jeremy Pied but he got injured at the beginning of the season and they said, ‘You need to come back’.

“I didn’t get a look-in under the new coach in pre-season, so I was thinking, ‘What’s the point?’

“Everton would have been a big step up, a chance to play with top players.

“I’d worked more in the gym in England, I was stronger and thinking faster – and I believed I could play.

“Then I went from somebody to nobody.

“I kept my belief and resolved to work hard and not give up.

“Ronald Koeman told me, ‘Don’t worry, next season you will be here’.

“I still didn’t think Everton would come back, so much can change in one year.

“But I was playing and training, thinking, ‘Don’t get injured’.”

Martina’s desire to get to Everton was founded on memories of his ex-Twente teammate Leroy Fer returning to Holland disconsolate following a failed Goodison medical.

“He came back saying, ‘What a great club’, and was really down because he missed his chance to join,” says Martina, who eventually transferred to Everton in July 2017.

“Then a few years later, I was there.

“Imagine. Cuco Martina playing for Everton. A huge club. Wow. I felt I was dreaming.”

Playing at Goodison, says Martina, “gave me goosebumps”. But he was watching from the sideline, replaced with Everton trailing Bournemouth 1-0 in September 2017, when he discovered the power of the stadium in full voice.

Cuco Martina
Imagine. Cuco Martina playing for Everton. A huge club. Wow. I felt I was dreaming.

Oumar Niasse scored two late goals for a dramatic comeback victory.

“I realised, if the fans are behind the players at Goodison, nobody can stop us,” says Martina. “It was crazy.”

Koeman departed three weeks later, nonetheless. Martina didn’t feature domestically under David Unsworth and told the caretaker manager, “I will fight but if is possible to leave, I will”.

The picture changed again when an injury for Leighton Baines forced Martina into an unfamiliar left-back position for Unsworth’s final match, a 4-0 thumping of West Ham United, with incoming manager Sam Allardyce in attendance.

“Sam came in the changing room and said, ‘That was a great performance… and I never change a winning team’,” says Martina, who played every minute of 16 straight Premier League games before Baines recaptured fitness.

“I was thinking, ‘Really?’

“He changed my life, completely.

“He gave me the confidence to play in the Premier League. If a coach believes in you, you give everything for him, as well as for yourself.

“It was quite easy to play left-back.

“I’d receive the ball from the centre-back, then play a channel ball for whoever was running into space.

“Sam wanted me to focus on defending. If I did that well, then saw the chance to create, I could do it.

Cuco Martina
He [Allardyce] gave me the confidence to play in the Premier League. If a coach believes in you, you give everything for him, as well as for yourself.

“There was a game against Crystal Palace when I crossed with my left foot for Niasse to score.

“Leighton told me, ‘You are playing well’. To hear that from him was great.

“He was the number one left-back, one of the best in Everton’s history.

“If I was back on the bench for someone I thought I should have been ahead of I’d have been angry.

“But Leighton Baines? Come on.”

Martina didn’t feature in the plans of Allardyce’s successor, Marco Silva, and went on loan to Stoke City for 2018/19.

“The story of my life,” he says,  referencing a flying start with Stoke that grounded when Nathan Jones replaced Gary Rowett as manager and preferred players on permanent contracts.

“If I wasn’t mentally strong, I would have stopped a long time ago,” continues Martina.

“You build something, then the coach changes and you start from zero again.”

Cuco Martina
If I was back on the bench for someone I thought I should have been ahead of I’d have been angry. But Leighton Baines? Come on.

Playing the second half of the season with Feyenoord represented “a dream come true”, but with that “box ticked” Martina wanted another crack with Everton.

That ambition grew more realistic when Duncan Ferguson was placed in temporary charge in December 2019.

“The day he became head coach, he walked to the second-team changing room, where I’d been based, looked at me, and said, ‘Let’s go my son’,” says Martina, who had considered retirement after an injury in the early part of the season left him unable to bend his knee.

“I said, ‘Really?’

“He told me, ‘You are my guy’.

“I was just fit again and he told me he needed me – and that he knew I needed him.

“Duncan had helped me through the bad moments, then he gave me the feeling I was part of the team again.”

Martina’s inclusion in the squad for Ferguson’s second game, a 1-1 draw at Manchester United, “was more special than the games I’d played”.

“This was somebody who believed in me,” he adds.

Martina was poised to return to the matchday party under Carlo Ancelotti, Silva’s permanent replacement, following an injury for Seamus Coleman, only for coronavirus to halt the campaign.

He was on the bench for games against Liverpool and Norwich City immediately after the restart but left when his contract expired at the end of June 2020.

“Ancelotti said I could go back and see my family and be happy,” says Martina.

“I really regret that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. It would have enabled me to close the book.

“But I loved Everton. It is a big club with really great fans, I played games and did well.”

Martina doesn’t rule out a tilt at the 2026 World Cup in North America with Curacao after the bitter pill of a single-goal defeat by Panama in a two-legged play-off in qualifying for this year’s tournament.

“To play a World Cup or Copa America is a dream for the whole country,” says Martina, who made his full Go Ahead Eagles debut in a 1-0 cup win at Heerenveen, in January.

“The coach told me to show I could still play,” says Martina, who also started a quarter-final victory over NEC Nijmegen this month.

“I grabbed the chance with both hands.

“I signed to show the club I am fit and a good player. I am 32 and can carry on for at least four more years.

“Football is my life and I am really happy and thankful to be back on the pitch.”

He’s a good man, Cuco Martina, and we should wish him well.