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  • Writer's pictureSriram Chidambaram

Emi Martinez, the Champion of the World

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Emi Martinez is an Argentine hero, a trash-talking icon, and an idol for millions of young goalkeepers worldwide. However, just two and a half years ago, he was a little-known backup goalkeeper who was battling to stay in top-flight European leagues. Emi Martinez’s story is one of perseverance, dedication, and hope. His career so far represents a steep exponential curve, with the dreariest of flats followed by a glorious climb.

Emi Martinez celebrating the quarter final win against The Netherlands, with the Argentine fans, on 9th December 2022.

On the 20th of June 2020, what seemed like an insignificant play set off a chain of events that would conclude with Martinez. Messi and Argentina lifting the World Cup.

When the Premier League resumed after the covid-19 suspensions, a mid-table Arsenal travelled to Brighton with the hope of revitalizing their 19/20 campaign. In the 36th minute, Arsenal Goalkeeper Bernd Leno came off his line to collect an overhit long ball. Neal Maupay, who was the intended target of the pass, had given up chase. However, the ball took an awkward bounce and slowed down its approach into Leno’s hands. Seeing the opportunity, Maupay made one last half-assed attempt at retrieving the ball, ultimately colliding with Leno in mid-air, after the Arsenal shot-stopper had already collected the ball. Leno went down with a loud scream (heard even on the broadcast), having landed awkwardly on the ground – he had severely hurt his knee.

The moment that kickstarted it all: Bernd Leno (right center) angrily gesturing towards Neal Maupay (left center), as he is being stretchered off the field.

I remember sitting in my room, at my desk watching Leno get taken off on a stretcher, furiously cursing and wagging his finger at an apologetic Maupay. It was a needless challenge that had ended in the worst possible way. A little-known 27-year-old goalkeeper, named Emiliano Martinez, came on to replace Leno. The Argentine net-minder had been with Arsenal for the past ten years but had never really broken through to the first team. He had been sent on numerous loan stints over the years, but none of them had clicked. Against Brighton, Martinez showed that he was a very capable keeper. He made several important saves and ealt with multiple crosses. However, Brighton equalized in the 75th minute and Maupay scored an injury time winner, adding insult to injury (quite literally) for the Gunners.

The lows were only temporary for Arsenal though, as Martinez finished the remainder of the 19/20 season in fine form. In fact, his remarkable performances in the FA semi-final (against Manchester City) and final (against Chelsea) led Arsenal to some silverware and a spot in Europe, masking their otherwise forgettable 19/20 campaign. In the post-match interview, after the FA Cup final, Martinez broke down into tears when asked about what this victory meant for him and his family. It showed how hard he had to work for this opportunity and how passionate he was about football.

Despite all this, Arsenal decided Leno, who was back fit, would be the first choice in net going into the 20/21 season. Emi Martinez was desperate for a starting role, and his brief show of potential earned him interest from numerous clubs. Eventually, he chose fellow Premier League club Aston Villa and quickly established himself as their starting keeper. His first season at the West Midlands was a great success – he equaled the club record for clean sheets in a season (15), was voted as the Villa supporters’ player of the season, and he helped Villa finish 11th (six places ahead of the previous year). Martinez received a lot of praise for his ability to hold the ball (when making a save), cross collection and distribution, all of which make up the core components of a ‘modern day goalkeeper.’

In the summer of 2021, Martinez was called up to the Argentina squad for a series of World Cup Qualifiers. He made his senior international debut on 3rd June 2021 against Chile. Good showings meant he would start in goal for his country in the 2021 Copa America later that month. In what could potentially be Messi’s last chance at winning the tournament, the pressure on the Argentine players was immense, and more so on the Argentine keeper. However, Martinez lived for moments like these, and he would thrive under the pressure. In the first game against Chile, he helped his side secure a 1 – 1 draw. The only goal conceded was from the rebound off a penalty that Martinez had saved. In the semi-final against Colombia, Emi Martinez put on another excellent penalty saving display by stopping a whopping three spot-kicks in the shootout, thereby ensuring Argentina’s spot in the final. Recently, Peter Drury described Martinez as a ‘character keeper,’ and this was where we saw that side of Martinez for the first time. Playing for his country meant more than anything to him and he did everything in his power to lead his country to glory. His pre-penalty antics and the way he got into the penalty taker’s head was comical yet effective.

The final was against an extremely strong Brazilian side but a clean sheet from Emi Martinez and a lone goal from Angel Di Maria led Argentina to a narrow 1 – 0 victory. Despite having made his international debut just 37 days ago, Martinez had helped Argentina to South American glory. He also took home the Golden Glove award, for being the best keeper in the tournament. With Martinez in goal, Messi was finally able to win a major international tournament with his country. Having waited a decade in the shadows at Arsenal, Martinez’s rise to stardom was rapid. Yet, this was just the beginning.

Having announced himself to the Argentine public in spectacular fashion, Martinez returned to England and had another commendable season. It may have not been as impressive as his first season at the West Midlands, but he was still one of Villa’s top five performers. Villa finished the 21/22 campaign in 14th place, but it might have been worse if not for Martinez’s efforts in goal.

The 2022 World Cup was looming ahead, and Martinez was the undisputed starting keeper for Argentina. In an interview with the Athletic, Emi Martinez reminded everyone how much playing for his country at the World’s biggest stage meant to him. He said, “Maybe when I hear the national anthem, the tears might be there.” and “I will tell myself, ‘I’ve made it’, when the first game starts.” Once again, the pressure was paramount as it was sure to be Messi’s last attempt to win the elusive World Cup. Martinez had won the hearts of the Argentine public after the Copa America in 2021, but everyone knew he could become public enemy no. 1 if he failed, here.

In Argentina’s opening game against Saudi Arabia, La Albiceleste astonishingly threw away a 1 – 0 lead and lost 1 – 2. Despite Emi Martinez not being responsible for any of those goals, boos rung out every time he touched the ball in their next game, against Mexico. However, Martinez did not let that faze him and a spectacular free kick save against Mexico’s Alexis Vega silenced his critics. Martinez continued to be immense for Argentina, in an unobtrusive sort of way. La Albiceleste could not have progressed to the final without Martinez’s last minute save against Australia in the round of 16 and two-penalty shootout saves against the Dutch in the quarter finals.

Emi Martinez making a crucial stop against Australia's Garang Kuol, in the 90 + 7th minute of their World Cup round of 16 matchup, to maintain Argentina's 2 - 1 advantage.

In the final against France, Kylian Mbappe put three past Martinez but there was little he could have done about any of them. With the game level at 3 – 3, Emi Martinez denied French forward Kolo Muani from point-blank range in the 120 + 3rd minute. If the Frenchman had scored, it was sure to be the last kick of the game and Messi and Argentina would have fallen short once again. But Emi Martinez had kept the Argentine dream alive, sending the game to penalties. Martinez’s shootout save combined with Argentina’s perfect record from the spot sealed a fairy tale ending for Lionel Messi. After repeated international heartbreaks, since 2006, Lionel Messi had finally completed the international double in his last attempt.

While the World celebrated Messi and his career, I had to look back at Emi Martinez’s unprecedented journey to the top. Just two and a half years ago, merely playing in the World Cup was a faraway dream for Martinez. Now, he had won football’s greatest trophy, while being the Golden Glove winner (the tournament's best keeper). A decade of unrecognition and failed loan spells, to a meteoric rise to the pinnacle of football – Martinez's story is truly inspiring.

Lionel Messi (right) embracing Emi Martinez (left) after his penalty shootout heroics against The Netherlands in the World Cup quarter finals, on 9th December 2022.

It is funny to think that it all started with Neal Maupay (half French half Argentine by the way) needlessly contesting a lost cause. But we still do not know what the future holds for Emi Martinez, World Cup glory may just be the beginning of his success. However, one just cannot help but feel that Emi Martinez was put on this planet with one job - to help Messi finally accomplish his international dream. M.S. Dhoni did it for Sachin Tendulkar in 2011, Kyrie Irving did it for LeBron James in 2016, and now Emi Martinez did it for Leo Messi in 2022.

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