Emiliano Martinez, world champion. That might have seemed far-fetched four years ago when he sat in the stands as just another Argentinian fan in Russia, watching France win 4-3 in an epic World Cup knockout game.
There Martinez had told his brother sitting next to him that he would be playing in the next World Cup. It was ambitious to say the least. He was then 25, a back-up at Getafe on his sixth loan from Arsenal; another followed at Reading where his status rose, before an unlikely opportunity opened at Arsenal when Bernd Leno suffered a freak injury.
By 2021 he was Argentina’s No 1 goalkeeper. Soon he was Copa America champion, his saves vital in denying Richarlison and others at the end of a tense final at Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana, the place where Lionel Messi and co had lost the World Cup final in 2014. Martinez was at the heart of their salvation.
Now he has beaten France in the greatest World Cup final of all time – and by extension perhaps the greatest football match. It is some story, some rise.
Such was Martinez’s array of unforgettable contributions to this final that it is hard to pick a best moment. Which image will be framed on his mantlepiece?
Maybe it will be his save to deny Randal Kolo Muani in extra time, a sprawling star-jump of a save which almost certainly changed the destiny of this World Cup. Some of the French substitutes were already on the pitch, thinking it was all over.
Maybe it will be the diving save to keep out Kingsley Coman’s penalty in the shootout, an early leap of faith to his right which proved prescient. Or the even greater leap into the sky in celebration, and the jig of joy that followed. Or the jump to his right again as he watched Aurelien Tchouameni’s penalty whistle past the post, for Martinez had psyched him out and that was the moment when Argentina’s momentum finally felt irreversible.
Or perhaps later on stage, when he was awarded the Golden Glove following his heroics. Martinez walked across the podium and proceeded to – how to put this – thrust at the award in front of the entire Lusail Stadium. The faces of the dignitaries behind him suggested that even after everything they’d just witnessed, all the incredible twists and turns, they weren’t expecting to see that.
The impression is of an emotional, sensitive man – think of the tears he shed when Arsenal won the 2020 FA Cup – with an inner grit and an inner git; a man who tried to console and inconsolable Kylian Mbappe on the pitch, but who then joked of holding “a minute’s silence for Mbappe” as Argentina laughed and danced in their dressing room.
His s***thousery during the shootout, waiting until Tchouameni walked all the way to the penalty spot before chucking the ball in the other direction, was petty, maybe even unsporting. But it was also undeniably cunning, a way of drawing out the moment, of igniting the wall of Argentinian wrath in the stand behind him, a way of asserting power. And it worked.
His fury after Argentina’s win over Netherlands had come to encapsulate this team, and as bizarre as this may sound about a World Cup, it was as if no team wanted as much as they did. Certainly, few players seemed to want it more. And after this unforgettable final, few contributed more either.
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