He came to learn English
New York Times News Service
Aug. 12, 2005

Jack Bell

Thiago Martins began his English lessons on a beach in Southern California - not under an umbrella while sipping a cool drink and munching on finger sandwiches, but while foraging for food and living on the streets (and on the beaches).

"I came here, really, to learn English, because in Brazil people don't have a lot of choices," Martins, who plays for Chivas USA in Major League Soccer, said (in English) during a telephone interview last week. "Education is expensive, and if you don't speak English, it's hard to find a decent job. It's a real struggle. In Brazil, either you are very rich or very poor."

Martins, 28, left his native Sao Paulo in 1996, when he was 19. He landed in Los Angeles with $1,000 and not a word of English in his vocabulary. He hopped a bus to Santa Barbara and ended up living on a beach for three months after his money ran out. He ate in soup kitchens and gladly accepted day-old bagels. He showered in the public restrooms near the Santa Barbara harbor.

"At that point, I couldn't go back to Brazil empty-handed, with no English," he said. "It was my own battle against my own future."

A pickup game on the beach led to a spot on an amateur team, making $10 for each goal he scored. That led to a place on the soccer team at the University of California-Santa Barbara and a degree in geography. From there, Martins played in the A-League for San Diego, Minnesota and Pittsburgh, where he was named the league's most valuable player after scoring 22 goals in 2003.

He then signed with DC United, but he missed last season when he twice tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Martins, a 6-foot striker, went to Chivas in the expansion draft and scored the first goal in club history.