Soccer  

Argentina, Aston Villa GK Emi Martinez backs bravado with play

As Gonzalo Montiel scored the winning penalty that made Argentina World Cup champions over France, Emiliano Martínez fell to his knees.

Part of it was exhaustion. Part of it was disbelief. All of it was existential joy.

Martínez’s emotions swam in a sea of self-reflection. He couldn’t quite believe it. Their goalkeeper, who had made critical saves in the final — and throughout the tournament in Qatar — had done it. He was finally a World Cup winner. The Argentinian crowd roared inside Lusail Stadium and across the globe, some possibly chanting his loving nickname based on a cartoon back when he was a youth player. “Dibu! Dibu! Dibu!”

“I couldn’t have even dreamed of a World Cup like this one,” said an emotional Martínez right after the historic victory. “I don’t have words.”

On their return to Buenos Aires, a day which had been declared a national holiday by the government, approximately five million people crowded the city’s Obelisk monument to commemorate their champions. The scenes were overwhelming as the team was celebrated in the streets. Martínez, surrounded by teammates, dancing and chanting, banging drums and signing flags, giving back to a fanbase who witnessed his greatness, helping the country earn its third World Cup and the first since 1986.

The day was so hectic that their bus couldn’t even arrive at its destination because of the crowds surrounding the highways, roads and paths. A failure from a security perspective. In the end, Martínez and his teammates were forced to take helicopters away from the crowd.

Days later, Martínez traveled to Mar de Plata, where he was born and raised, and celebrated the victory with thousands of people, all of them jubilant for the arrival of their prodigal hero. “My dream was to bring this title to my city,” said the proud keeper as the crowd roared in the fan festival, an almost unbelievable ending to an almost implausible month.

As Argentina cheered the actual title, however, from Córdoba to Buenos Aires, Rosario and Mar de Plata (Martinez’s birthplace) and all over the world, Aston Villa fans joined them in jubilation. They had a unique bond because Martinez — the passionate, hard-working stopper who left Independiente for England when he was 18 in order to help his family — was also one of them.

“Villa fans are absolutely in love with Emi and have been ever since he walked through the door a little over two years ago now,” said Ashley Preece, head correspondent for Birmingham Mail and a beat reporter for the club. “It’s his endearing nature to be the best, how he’s battled back from where he was in his career previously and his will and drive to do anything to win. He’s living an absolute dream at the moment and long may that continue.”

Martínez’s club career is the football equivalent of climbing the Andes. After joining Arsenal in 2010, and battling for his worth with loan after loan — from Oxford United to Rotherham, Getafe and Reading — he finally proved his worth in 2020. After an injury to Arsenal starting keeper Bernd Leno, Martinez exceeded expectations, which included an FA Cup win against Chelsea where he made crucial saves. After that victory, he was naturally reduced to tears. He thought of his family back in Argentina, his career up to that point, and the continuous need to feel he needed to prove his worth. He was putting it all out there, for the world to see.

Now a few years later, after moving to Aston Villa and becoming their first ever active World Cup champion, Martínez was celebrating his incredible achievement.

“I’m unbelievably proud and relieved,” said Neil Cutler, Villa’s former goalkeeping coach and Martínez’s mentor and friend. “When you know all the details that he put into the last three years to get to where he is now, and to achieve what he’s achieved, I just wanted him to win it. He’s dedicated his life, all his time. He is passionate, driven. People don’t really see the details behind the scenes. Those little small things that make him the man he is, the goalkeeper he is today, he’s put everything into this tournament. So it’s a massive relief, and I’m so proud.”

Cutler shares this victory as much Martínez. Both went through so much together as his arrival to Aston Villa was more than just a transfer. It was the keeper’s most important move as Cutler guided Martínez into what he is today. “Big Cuts,” as he is lovingly known, never likes to take credit. He constantly reminds us that he was merely the guide, it was all Martínez and his incredible drive.

But Martínez would disagree because he knows how much he owes his development to Cutler and Aston Villa.

So much in fact that right after the victory, when Argentina’s squad returned to the dressing room to celebrate, the players picked up their phones to call loved ones and share their moment. Martínez called his wife, kids, his parents and then, Cutler. Martínez wanted to make sure that Cutler shared what he was feeling, in that specific moment.

“He’s that personality,” Cutler said. “He doesn’t forget people. Even though I have left the football club, he recognizes that we have this bond. He just doesn’t forget people, and he’ll be like that all the way through his life, I’m sure.”

Cutler’s influence on Martínez cannot be understated. While Martinez was playing with Arsenal in 2020, Cutler conducted specific research on his statistics and technique, but he also identified a key characteristic that became the biggest selling point.

“When I saw him cry in the FA Cup final, it showed his passion and desire to win things, which is huge. It’s way up there,” Cutler said. “He is driven to be the best. You know he’s going to be driven because he wants to win it, he wants to win things, and that’s a massive thing for me. You know you’re going to put him on the pitch and he’s going to give you absolutely everything.”

There have been matches for Aston Villa, for example, when Martínez has had to play with the flu and not feeling very well. He has also had to travel thousands of miles, away from family, as he challenged himself between club and country during COVID. Hours and hours or sweat and tears, all between his native land and his adopted England. He does it because his will to compete supersedes everything, and that was evident throughout the World Cup.

But there is another factor that felt attractive to Cutler, eventually developed and brought out by him and the keeper. Once he convinced Dean Smith (Villa’s former manager) and club sporting director Johan Lange to bring Martínez to the club, Cutler’s top objective, before any ball was kicked, was to bring out his persona. Transmit Martínez the person to the goalkeeper.

“We wanted to bring his personality out to the pitch,” Cutler said. “Rather than being within him and not showing his personality, we were working a lot on pushing himself to the point where he’s not quite arrogant, but he’s confident to the point of arrogance on the pitch, where you can see that he’s confident. Not just feel it inside but showing it with mannerisms and the way you hold yourself.

“Big thing that we worked through the course of last year was really forcing that out. Shoulders back, chest forward, head up. Your leadership comes out through what you do, your presence and your character. Before [joining Aston Villa] he would go within himself, go in his shell and be frustrated by things that weren’t going right. I was trying to bring that out a little bit more. Don’t get frustrated inwards, get frustrated outwards. Help people, and he’s doing that far better now.”

This is why his controversial gesture after receiving his Golden Glove award does not fully paint the whole picture. Or holding a Kylian Mbappe doll during the celebration in Buenos Aires. Yes, to some, they probably weren’t his finest moments but it’s very difficult for Martínez to remove this bravado from the pitch. He is always, as Cutler noted, with his chest up, pumping euphoria from his eyelids.

Switching it off requires days, not minutes. But it’s also what makes him so special. He’s not asking for your forgiveness. He’s telling you who he is.

When you see Martínez showing his antics during penalties — whether it’s taunting, hand gestures or dancing in front of an official — those actions are all part of a bigger scheme, a deeper strategy. Sun Tzu’s Art of War states “the whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent” and that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” This is what Martínez does. It’s a masterpiece of psychological dominance.

In training he’s no different. Cutler recalled how he does this to his own Aston Villa teammates whenever they do penalty training. He is never off, he is never unalerted. Everything is a battle. Every single minute.

There are, of course, other goalkeeping traits that make Martínez a goalkeeper of absolute unique ability. It could be fair to say, for example, that Argentina’s win against France didn’t come in the penalty shootout, but rather in the final seconds of extra time when the game looked certain for penalties. Then came the moment when Argentinians had their hearts in their throat.

France defender Ibrahima Konate delivered a hopeful pass and due to tired legs and a lack of Argentinian focus, it found Randal Kolo Muani, who realized he was one-on-one with Martínez. There were seconds left and the Les Bleus forward was a hit away from becoming a hero.

Then came Dibu, who stuck out an outstretched leg to stop his team from losing in such a dramatic way. It was an incredible moment, but one that had been planned. At least from the keeper and Cutler.

“His positioning in relation to the ball, we’ve worked so much on that,” said Cutler, who recalls countless hours of his inside-the-box work. “The detail of holding your shape and not having lots of triggers before the ball is hit. He’s so quick at transferring because he holds his shape, transfers so quickly so he’s hard to beat. That save was so detailed, he didn’t move. He didn’t rotate, he didn’t fall back and if you see the pictures, his shoulders are squared and his head is squared and he’s like [to Muani], ‘you got nowhere to go.’” We’ve worked so much on that.”

Martínez is an incredible story of redemption, where he had to wait so long for his moment. Those who play against him, despise him. Those who play with him, depend on him, but one thing is for sure, for Aston Villa fans, he is the pride of the club.

Is there a worry, therefore, that he might be persuaded to leave for a club who perhaps can offer more than Aston Villa?

“Thankfully, Villa have Martinez on a contract until 2027 so the club can demand absolute top-dollar, I’m talking close to a world-record fee,” Preece said. “I do, though, honestly feel that Martinez’s future remains at Villa Park providing the club continues to move forward. I can’t stress this enough, though, and that, having spoken to him on a few occasions, Martinez feels indebted to Villa for pushing so hard to sign him from Arsenal, at a time where he was demoted down to No. 2 with his career, at that time, at a crossroads. Villa — and Cutler — went all out to get him and told him he’ll become a great player, playing week-in, week-out with the carrot becoming Argentina’s No. 1.”

Cutler agreed.

“He’s very, very loyal. He loves the football club,” he said. “You have very rich owners, they’re not going to sell him for next to nothing. It’s a football club that’s growing all the time, you have a very good manager who will keep the club moving forward, so not only you have the money but you have the manager, the fans, the ground, the club is moving forward and going places.

“He’ll feel that, he’ll know that, and he’s not even thinking about that [outside interest], his head will solely be on getting back to Aston Villa, getting back playing and moving Aston Villa up the league. He won’t even think of moving away or wanting to move away. That’s not the way he works. He will just want to keep growing and be better and better and better. The fans love him and he knows that, he loves the football club. He’s not going to walk away from a club that’s going places like Aston Villa.”

His current manager Unai Emery also sees how instrumental it is to have a goalkeeper of his rise and reputation at the club because desire, determination is contagious. It creates an environment of elevated competition.

“The last time I met with him here I was talking about his ambition, and he told me he wanted to be the best goalkeeper in the world. I want players like that,” said Emery last week, prior to the Boxing Day fixtures. “I want players being ambitious, professional every day and thinking to learn and be better. His mind is so strong.

“Here, we don’t have a lot of players with experiences winning a lot of trophies and titles — those big moments. I think Emiliano can — and must — use these experiences to help us here and be positive.”

For now, from this South American who migrated to England at a young age and can relate about the struggles of cultural acclimation, this is an ode to Emiliano Martínez. One of the greatest, vindicating stories for any goalkeeper. A World Cup champion and an eternal fighter. For Argentina and Aston Villa.

You might love him. You might detest him. It doesn’t matter to him. He just wants you to feel something.

Because that’s what he does every single day.