There are nine unique chairs surrounding Obafemi Martins' dining room table, each upholstered with one of the teams he's represented during his 16-year professional soccer career. From Inter Milan to Rubin Kazan to the Seattle Sounders, the chairs mark a journey that has literally taken him around the world.
The chairs are a material reminder that Martins has moved a lot, and has not been shy about trying new things. He's already in an elite cohort of players who have scored in Serie A, the Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga. Just for good measure he's added the Russian Premier League, MLS and, soon enough, the Chinese Super League (CSL). Martins has played in a World Cup and has been a part of Nigeria's national team off and on since 2004.
He is not someone who allows himself to get comfortable in any one place. Martins confirmed as much in his farewell message to Sounders fans last week, saying "I've grown to appreciate the feeling I get when entering environments where I'm not a proven footballer."
Martins is, in an almost literal sense, a collector of clubs. Or to put it another, perhaps less flattering, way: He's a hired gun. For a time, he was the Sounders' hired gun, dutifully putting on a show, scoring goals and generally being a delightful person to watch do his job.
But make no mistake, Martins was doing a job. It's a job that has taken him to various clubs throughout his professional career. It's a job that's not compelled him to spend more than three years with any club over the last 10. It's a job that has required the best performers to push themselves outside their comfort zones. It's a job that has usually taken him to the highest bidder.
That should not diminish his achievements as he officially joins Shanghai Shenhua of the CSL. Like all professional athletes, Martins has a finite amount of time in which he can be paid handsomely to do his job, and he'd be a fool not to maximize that potential.
Various reports have suggested the Sounders will receive about $2 million from a transfer fee and that Martins will clear about $6.6 million -- about triple of what he'd have made after taxes with the Sounders. While the timing of the move was well short of ideal, it's hard to blame Martins for collecting. Even if the reports that he's signed a nine-month deal are accurate, he'll be a 32-year-old free agent at the end of it, and surely be able to find at least one more team who's willing to put aside any concerns over his long-term commitment in exchange for the potential to sign someone who has never failed to produce when healthy.
Producing is the one thing he's done at every stop, and he's lived up to any possible on-field expectations we could have had for him. No, he didn't bring the Sounders a MLS Cup, but he was the best player on a Supporters' Shield-US Open Cup double in 2014 and goes down in history as one of the best Designated Player signings in league history.
Even during his first year in Seattle, when injuries severely cut into his playing time and limited him to just one goal over the final three-and-a-half months, Martins scored eight goals and provided a glimpse of what kind of a player the Sounders had signed.
Mostly healthy in 2014, Martins was arguably the best player in MLS. He set a Sounders scoring record with 17 goals, added 13 assists and formed a partnership with Clint Dempsey that made them one of the best forward tandems in league history. It was special to watch.
Injuries again cut into his season in 2015, but Martins still scored 15 goals and had six assists. He also provided some particularly glorious moments, like that behind-the-back, first-touch turn against the Colorado Rapids, his spin move against the Houston Dynamo, the overhead volley against the San Jose Earthquakes, and the assist to himself against Orlando City. The spectacular goals seemed to outpace the mundane.
Martins had other-worldly balance, made the ball move in magical ways, was an underrated passer and conjured goals from absolutely nothing. He was quite unlike any player in MLS, past or present. He is the kind of player you tell your kids about watching.
Whether or not he considered being a Sounder just a job, it should be said that no one seemed to get more joy out of seeing the ball hit the back of the net than Martins, whether it was his goal, his assist or another teammate's. That grin that splashed across his face was one of his signatures as much as his backflip celebration.
It was tempting to interpret that happiness as a sign that he had finally found a home in a place where 40,000 fans routinely lost their minds on his behalf. But it wasn't realistic. No matter how much we sang his name and made him feel welcome -- and I don't doubt his sincerity when he says "Seattle will always have a special place in my heart" -- it was destined to be a temporary situation. If you'd like a nice way of putting it, Martins has wanderlust in his heart and there's no reason to think he'll stop moving until the job offers stop.
It's worth remembering the circumstances surrounding Martins' arrival in Seattle, too. He was playing for La Liga's Levante and they were in the midst of a decent Europa League run. Martins was their leading scorer, maybe even their best player (sound familiar?). But Martins had come there on a discount, was outperforming his contract and was looking for a raise. The Sounders, who were still looking for a Fredy Montero replacement, were happy to oblige.
Levante wasn't particularly interested in selling, though, and weren't even willing to negotiate. Right on cue, Martins begged out of training with a supposed injury and then started making his case about desiring a transfer in the press. After much wrangling and under threat of legal action, Martins eventually agreed to pay his own buyout clause -- in between the first and second legs of a Europa League Round of 16 encounter, no less -- clearing the way for the Sounders to sign him.
In the span of nine days, Martins went from playing for Levante (March 7) to paying his buyout (March 11) to arriving in Seattle (March 15) to making his debut (March 16).
The Sounders understood what they were getting into. Martins was a player who would score goals, make a team better, but expect to be compensated accordingly. And if he wasn't, he'd have no problem making life difficult. Whether or not he was under contract did not make much of a difference.
Every offseason there were rumors about a transfer, with seemingly every mid- to lower-table Premier League team supposedly interested at one time or another.
Nothing came of any of those rumors, but it's not hard to imagine the Sounders growing tired of them anyway. When a deal finally came to fruition, the Sounders surely knew that standing in Martins' way of a potential transfer was not a good soccer move. I seriously doubt the Sounders welcomed the timing of the deal, but I also don't think they were particularly interested in trying to get Martins to change his mind.
Maybe they should have tried. Martins was arguably the best player in Sounders history, replacing him will be no small task and finding an improvement is hardly guaranteed.
The Sounders, surely, are less talented collectively today than they were a few weeks ago. As good as Jordan Morris may be, as improved as Nelson Valdez looks with a full offseason, as promising as Clint Dempsey is in a redesigned role, there's still reason to think letting Martins walk now will leave the Sounders worse, at least in the short term.
At the same time, the Sounders knew Martins had his heart set on adding chairs to his dining room table. This way, they got a bit of money and the ability to replace him. At least in theory.