The man who brought Argentina their third world title in the penalty shootout is known for turning out the hero in such situations. Emiliano Martinez had done so against the Dutch earlier in the tournament, and he had Messi’s affection and gratitude as reward.
On that night against the Netherlands, as the rest of the Argentina team rushed to Lautaro Martinez after their penalty shootout victory in the quarterfinals, Messi ran towards his right. At one end of the Lusail Stadium, Martinez, who had flown to his left and right to deny Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis in the tie-breaker, lay on the ground.
By the time Messi went and picked up Martinez, the custodian was already in tears. A total contrast to how he was after making those two saves at the start of the penalty shootout. The cocky, confident goalkeeper, one who doesn’t shy away from being in the ear of the opposition, was in tears as he hugged Messi.
As much as this is Messi’s dream, it is Martinez’s too. Or for that matter, the whole of Argentina’s. For Martinez, the run to the final in itself would feel surreal. At the last edition in Russia, as France were knocking Argentina out in the Round of 16, he watched from the stands with his brother, promising that he would win the World Cup in 2022.
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It was only in June 2021 that Martinez first played for Argentina, thanks to his excellent show with Arsenal and Aston Villa over the previous two seasons. After winning the Copa America last year, here he is. For all the exuberance that he brings to the team, there is an emotional side to Martinez, and he is constantly trying to prove something to someone.
Before we go back to his roots, here is a short flashback. On August 1, 2020, as Arsenal lifted their 14th FA Cup in front of empty stands at Wembley, the camera panned towards Martinez, one of the standout players for the club in an otherwise forgettable season. Nobody had re-energized the team as much as its goalkeeper that season. From the time he joined the club as a 17-year-old in 2010, he had spent six loan spells away, failing to even be their No 2. And when the moment finally arrived in 2020 to start in the first XI, he not only grabbed it with both hands, but also proved a point or two.
As Arsenal defeated Chelsea in the final, at one end of Wembley, Martinez with his back to the LED advertising boards, was on a phone call with his family, enjoying what had been one of the biggest moments in his career thus far. This was a moment he had been dreaming of, but there was something missing.
“It has been 10 years since I joined the club and at the final whistle, everything goes through your head. I wish the fans and my family would be here for the final, obviously with 90,000 or 80,000 people at Wembley, somewhere you don’t play every day. I wish my whole family was there. Like I said, we came from a poor family and for them to see me there winning a trophy in front of 90,000 people and getting a medal would be something,” he told arsenal.com
Having sent a message, by the time the 2021-22 season started, Martinez moved to Villa, where he wasn’t going to fight with anyone else for his spot. After struggling for years and getting nothing easily, he was the undisputed No. 1.
Martinez is very attached to his parents. When he received the offer from Arsenal, his mother wanted him to stay put at their home in Mar del Plata,and pursue football in Argentina. Even as Martinez was wiping the tears, memories of his father staying up crying all night unable to pay bills and his mother staying hungry all day so that her children could eat a meal, flashed in his mind.
A day later, he boarded the flight to Heathrow. And even when he wasn’t starting for Arsenal, he was looking after the young players from South America, helping them settle in a totally different life in North London. When Brazilian wunderkind Gabriel Martinelli moved to Arsenal as a 17-year-old, and struggled to adapt to life as he didn’t know the local language, it was Martinez who would make the teenager feel comfortable.
Martinez has flown under the radar of big clubs. But ask any opponent, he is as tough as anyone can come across, especially between the goalposts.
There is a reason why he is so good with shootouts. During the pandemic-enforced lockdown, he made his wife Madinha repeatedly load the ball machine so that he faced as many shots as possible. And the 2021 Copa America made him a hero back home. In the semifinal shootout against Colombia, he made three saves, prompting Messi to call him a phenomenon. Coach Lionel Scaloni marvels at the security he brought to the backline, as if it made the team feel there were two players behind the defenders. Few would disagree with that.