On 22 November 1998, a slight young striker by the name of Nino came off the bench for third-tier side Elche CF, to replace future Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova. The 18-year-old, made quite an impression, soon hit the key goal in a 3-1 victory against Figueres, to keep his team on course for promotion.
Fast forward to 16 August 2020, and Elche club captain Nino scores the winner in los franjiverdes (The ‘Green Stripes’) LaLiga SmartBank play-off semi-final second leg at Real Zaragoza.
The now 40-year-old next starred for Elche as they beat Girona in the play-off final, and recent weeks have now seen the ‘grandfather of LaLiga Santander’ proudly lead his team in the top flight.
Never the tallest forward, but still one of the sharpest around, Nino is beginning his 22nd season as a professional, the majority of which have been spent at the club where he began his professional career and has become a much cherished icon and hero.
Born on 10 June 1980 in Vera, Almeria, Juan Francisco Martinez Modesto was 15 when he joined Real Madrid’s youth academy, where Iker Casillas was a contemporary and teammate. While Casillas went on to win five LaLiga titles with Madrid, Nino moved back closer to home by joining Elche in 1997 and has never regretted it through more than two decades of ups and downs since.
Nino’s first season as a senior pro ended with Elche returning to LaLiga SmartBank level, and their young striker soon became a fixture in the starting XI. His most productive campaign was 2004-05 when he reached the 20-goal mark, although his team still finished 10th in the table.
Financial considerations on part of both player and club led to a 2006 move to Levante, while he also spent time at CD Tenerife and Osasuna – during which time Elche managed to play two top-flight seasons without him. While at Osasuna he suffered a serious knee injury suffered at the age of 33, which might have ended the career of other less determined players, but he fought back to return to action against (you guessed it) Elche.
By 2016 he was back full time as a player at Elche, who were going through another historic dip in his absence. 2017-18 saw him celebrate his 37th birthday, while also hitting 16 goals as the team again won promotion from the third tier back up to LaLiga SmartBank.
That might have been enough for some – but not for Nino. He still had yet to play for his beloved franjiverdes in LaLiga Santander. Last December he hit his 130th LaLiga goal for Elche in a 2-0 victory over Racing Santander, passing previous club record holder Pierita. His experience and nous around the penalty area were then vital to the late season push to actually achieve promotion.
Such longevity and productivity mean that Nino has been setting records for some time. At the end of last season, he was the player with most LaLiga SmartBank games (571) and goals (194). His 693 games between LaLiga Santander and LaLiga SmartBank was also unmatched by any current player. He sits in the top 10 of all time Spanish league goal scorers, alongside such legends of the game such as Cesar Rodriguez, Hugo Sanchez, David Villa, Raul Gonzalez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The oldest goal scorer at LaLiga Santander level record is currently former RC Deportivo midfielder Donato, who was aged 40 years and 138 days when he found the net against Athletic Club in January 2003.
Nino will pass that age later this month, and his team are scheduled to play neighbours Valencia just that weekend. The grandfather of LaLiga is not ready to retire just yet.