Josef Martinez is not going to lie. Last year was very, very difficult for him. Dealing with a pandemic is hard enough but when you're injured, recuperating from a knee injury where he tore his ACL, and seeing his teammates attempting to create a positive season with under-fire manager Frank de Boer, was just too much.
"The day by day was the hardest for me," says the Venezuelan striker, speaking to CBS SPORTS and ¡Qué Golazo!. "Any kind of injury is difficult for a player who is not used to not being away from the pitch for so long, and they told me it would be hard, but I never realized it would be this hard. When you live it personally, then you see it. It continues to be hard. It's like a rollercoaster. One day you feel good, others you're down. But I thank God and this excellent medical team here at the club, my family and everyone else for helping me get through it."
Martinez, an MLS Cup winner and MVP back when Atlanta won the trophy back in 2018, wears his heart on his sleeve, but most importantly, he lives for this club and this city. This is home to him. So when he's not not able to protect it, it demoralizes him.
Now, as he returns to action, piece by piece, day by day, he looks ahead to 2021 as a chance to reclaim what's his. "The year may be different but that anxious feeling of returning, that feeling of playing and entering the pitch, that never goes away...and this club always has to think about winning."
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Forget the goals, which he scores a tremendous amount. 77 goals in 84 league matches for Atlanta to be exact. Martinez just wants to compete and show the league that he is back.
Last month, speaking to the media, he said, "Papa esta de regreso," [the father is back] and he has taken in some minutes during Atlanta's CONCACAF Champions League win against L.D. Alajuelense, taking them to the quarter final stage of the competition.
But he knows that it's about patience and eventually getting back to what he knows best. The thing is, now his work continues under a new manager, the Argentinian, former PSG, Man United and Real Madrid star Gabriel Heinze, a student of Marcelo Bielsa, who is a talented manager (coming from Velez Sarsfield) in his own right.
Martinez knows the atmosphere is a new one at Atlanta, and he can feel it.
"I'm very happy to have someone here who still lives football. He lives it more than anyone I know," he says. "Training is very intense. He asks for a lot of focus, and to give it your 100%. Every ball you fight for, you treat it as it's your last one, and we feel good at the moment. Training this way."
Martinez wants this kind of work, and he laughs at the fact that a Peruvian is currently conducting this interview, because he blames Peruvian food for a slight, slight weight gain when he was out. "I gained 10 kgs in a week! This food is killing me!"
Either way, Josef looks more and more like his old self and to him, just entering the pitch once again, is a victory in itself. "I just want to finish a game. 90 minutes. As a striker, you're always thinking about goals, but to me, it's about finishing the game. That to me is key."
Atlanta United is very special to Josef Martinez. To him, there is no other place like it and he wants to show his gratitude to the city and the fans, by giving it all on the pitch. "This is my home. Until the day that it's not possible, this is my home. Always."
Atlanta United visit Orlando City on Saturday at 3pm ET as MLS kicks off this weekend.