In football, few things are clear cut.
Southampton full-back Cuco Martina is widely acknowledged to have been the first player from Curacao to score a Premier League goal, having found the net against Arsenal on Boxing day 2015. But Aston Villa’s Leandro Bacuna scored five Premier League goals in the 2013/14 season. In 2016, after Martina’s one and only goal for the Saints, Bacuna elected not to play for the Netherlands but to pledge his allegiance to the Curacao national team instead, having been born in Holland to Curacaoan parents.
Martina, then, wasn’t the first player of Curacaoan descent to score a Premier League goals, but was the first active Curacao player to score one. So is Martina the first, or is it really Bacuna? Both seem to have some sort of claim.
What isn’t up for dispute, though, is that Martina has definitely scored the best goal by a Curacaoan footballer in Premier League history.
Coming in a 4-0 win over Arsenal at St Mary’s during a Christmas period when the Saints were struggling badly. Indeed, that Boxing Day victory was the only one that Ronald Koeman’s side picked up between November 7th and January 13th: a run of eight games with only one victory to show for it. The only other time they picked up even one point in that run was a 1-1 draw with, ironically enough, Bacuna’s Aston Villa, who were well on their way to relegation.
The Arsenal result was a crucial one, though. Because although Southampton lost their next two fixtures over the New Year period, that was when they finally turned a corner. After that, they lost only three times in the Premier League, a run that propelled the Saints into the Europa League group stages through their league position, finishing sixth.
And if the victory over Arsenal was a crucial game, giving the side the belief they needed to turn their slump around in the second half of the season, it was Martina’s goal that sparked it, the first of the match. Recently, then-manager Ronald Koeman has been talked about as a potential candidate for jobs at clubs like Barcelona. It’s speculation and probably overly flattering, but it shows how highly the Dutchman is regarded. Without that turnaround at Southampton, though, he’d just be another failed foreign manager.
Still remembered as one of the greatest strikes in Premier League history, the Curacaoan right-back’s right foot rifled a bullet past Petr Cech in the Arsenal goal. One of the greatest goalkeepers in Premier League history was beaten, but the speed would have beaten every keeper. And yet, the speed isn’t even the impressive part.
Starting the ball at least two yards outside the far post, Martina’s outside-of-the-boot swerve brings it back inside the post, nestling into the net with a satisfaction that only a strike like that can bring.
A year and a half later, though, and it’s clear that Martina isn’t going to be much more that a bit-part player at St Mary’s. Beloved forever for a goal of rare quality, maybe, but hardly a step up on Cedric Soares. He’s a player destined to start games on the bench and play when injuries and suspensions have depleted the starting XI.
As luck would have it, though, Martina’s old boss Koeman finds himself in such a position with his new side Everton. Seamus Coleman’s broken leg has already sidelined the Irishman since late March, but it looks set to keep him out for most of next season, too. And when you compare his injury – a double leg break – to the likes of Luke Shaw’s similar break in 2015, you get the feeling that the physical recovery is only the half of it; the mental recovery is just as important, and probably even harder.
This season, Shaw has been criticised for his mental strength by none other than his own club coach, Jose Mourinho. It doesn’t really get any worse than that, and former Manchester United physio Matt Radcliffe told ESPNFC earlier this year that many might see the manager’s treatment of the young England international as ‘bullying’, though he did add that Luke Shaw himself may not see it that way.
That means Koeman will need a replacement for Coleman without actually replacing the Irishman. Someone he can trust in the role for the medium-term, to keep the position open for Coleman’s eventual return. That might just be Martina. Starved of first-team opportunities at Southampton, the right-back could be on his way to Everton this summer, and although he wouldn’t be a long-term first choice on Merseyside either, he would be for the next few months.
It’s a sign that, although Martina has never stood out as one of the Premier League’s best right-backs, Ronald Koeman seems to trust him enough to bring him into a Champions League-chasing side and start him at a time when he knows that Coleman will be out for much of the season and probably not back to his very best for quite a while.
And at what was probably Koeman’s lowest ebb as Southampton manager, over the Christmas period in 2015 when it looked like he might even lose his job if things didn’t pick up, Martina scored the goal that sparked a 4-0 win and, in time, a change in fortune and form.
Every player is made better through a manager’s trust.