Emi Martinez: From the Arsenal bench to Argentina’s Copa ‘phenomenon’

“I’m lost for words,” said Emiliano Martinez, stood on the side of the pitch at the Estadio Mane Garrincha in Brasilia after Argentina had beaten Colombia in the penalty shootout of their Copa America semi-final on Tuesday night. “Today it was my turn for glory.”

It was his turn for glory; glory that has been a long time coming. And though he may not have been able to find the words to describe it once it had been achieved, he had found the right ones to help Argentina achieve it.

Minutes earlier as he stood in the goalmouth, watching Colombia’s Yerry Mina put the ball on the spot, Martinez had, as one Argentinian outlet put it, “parked a bus inside Mina’s head” with his wagging tongue.

“You’re nervous, huh? You’re laughing but you’re nervous,” Martinez shouted to the Everton centre-half. “I know where you’ll shoot. And then I’ll save it. Look, I’m eating you up, brother. I’m eating you up, brother.”

Martinez, after the bluster, was as good as his word. He dived down to his right and palmed Mina’s penalty away. It was the second of three saves that he would make in a shootout that booked a dream Copa America final against hosts Brazil and made him a hero at home. On Saturday night at the Maracana, he will be hoping to go a step further and be part of the first Argentinian team to win a major trophy since 1993.

Yet even if they fall at the final hurdle – as Argentina did in this competition in 2015 and 2016 – it is miraculous that Martinez has come so far so quickly. On Saturday, it will be 385 days since Bernd Leno was injured in Arsenal’s Premier League game against Brighton and Martinez came on to replace him, beginning the remarkable sequence of events that have led him to Rio de Janeiro.

Before that injury to Leno, the 6’4″ Mar del Plata-born ‘keeper was an unrecognised and under-appreciated backup: Arsenal’s longest-serving player, but one who had had to content himself with little more than an observer’s role for the best part of a decade.

Before that injury to Leno, Martinez had made just 14 appearances for Arsenal in nine and a half seasons at the club. He had been out on loan to Oxford United, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham, Wolves, Getafe and Reading, yet at none of those clubs had he played more than 18 games.

Martinez’s childhood was tough. He was born in one of Mar del Plata’s villa miseria slums. In October 2020, he told the Independent: “All those hard moments, what I’ve suffered, seeing my dad cry because we couldn’t pay the bills. That was all I ever knew.”

As is so often the case, opportunities for him were limited and football was his salvation. He was spotted by ex-Banfield and Gimnasia de la Plata player Roberto ‘Cacho’ Gonzalo, who took him in at a local club and convinced him that playing in goal and not at centre-forward, as the young Martinez wished, would be his best chance of making it.

After failed trials at Boca Juniors and River Plate, Martinez moved to big Buenos Aires side Independiente and got into the Argentina youth teams. There, he was spotted by Arsenal, who in 2011 offered him the irrecusable chance to move to a Premier League giant.

He took it, but things did not pan out as he might have hoped. Though he was able to help his family into a more comfortable life, his on-pitch ambitions remained unfulfilled.

When the chance finally came, though, he grabbed it like he clutches onto flying footballs. As Arsenal made a positive end to the pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season, he was magnificent, stopping shots, plucking crosses out of the air and distributing the ball with style and panache.

Come August, Martinez wept by the side of the pitch whilst on a video call with his parents after an FA Cup final that brought him his first silverware as a senior pro. “Emi is very emotional and he had a lot of downs; situations where he felt he wouldn’t get the chance,” former Arsenal goalkeeping coach Gerry Peyton told The Athletic. All that pent up frustration came out at once.

Still, Mikel Arteta did not see fit to guarantee Martinez the No.1 shirt and he moved to Aston Villa, where, at 28, he got to be a first-choice ‘keeper for a full season for the first time. Again, he excelled, winning the fans’ Player of the Year award.

In December, his manager Dean Smith summed up his influence: “It is not just about keeping the ball out of the back of the net. It is the composure he shows, the calmness he gives out to the rest of the team.”

He played well through autumn, winter and spring, well enough to be noticed by Argentina manager and ex-West Ham player Lionel Scaloni. He was called up for World Cup qualifiers in October and November. But like he had at Arsenal for so long, he had to content himself with a place on the bench.

River Plate’s Franco Armani has been the first-choice ‘keeper for Argentina since 2018, with either Boca Juniors No.1 Esteban Andrada or Porto man Agustin Marchesin as his back-up. While none of them are exceptional – certainly not with their feet – they have not done too much wrong.

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READ: Set your alarms – Inspired Messi is intent on making history for Argentina

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Yet having finally worked his way into a good club side at the highest level and proven himself more than capable, Martinez must have known that he would eventually find a chance. Called up once more for two World Cup qualifiers and the Copa America in June and July, that chance came. Predictably, Martinez has not let it slip.

With Armani ruled out with Covid, Martinez made his debut in a 1-1 draw with Chile in the first of the two World Cup qualifiers and has not been out of the team since, bar for a dead-rubber group game with Bolivia which Scaloni used to rotate.

The Villa ‘keeper has been vital to Argentina’s progression. Martinez is more well-rounded than the other options, better with crosses and better in possession, and he made a crucial save in the quarter-final with Ecuador as well as becoming the penalty hero in the semis.

“We have Emi, who is a phenomenon,” Lionel Messi, who has looked inspired and invigorated during this tournament, said after the Colombia match. “We know and trust him. He deserves it.”

At home, Martinez has suddenly achieved huge popularity too.  Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Nery Pumpido called Martinez “a goalkeeper of great personality, a goalkeeper who is very secure, who manages his area well.” Martinez-themed merchandise has also popped up across the internet, with hoodies, t-shirts and mugs with a diving Martinez silhouette and the words, ‘Look, I’m eating you up’ printed across them.

Now, in an attempt to end that trophy drought, Argentina face Brazil at the Maracana. The home side are the holders and favourites. But Martinez has demonstrated already that he is not easily defeated.

“Brazil have a great team,” he said in the build-up, “but we have the best [player] in the world and we’re going there to win.”

By Joshua Law

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