Emiliano Martinez: Hated by opponents, loved by Argentina, endlessly entertaining (2024)

Before Lionel Messi’s infamous bark at Netherlands striker Wout Weghorst at the 2022 World Cup, Argentina team-mate Emiliano Martinez went viral with his own antagonistic catchphrase.

Goalkeeper Martinez burst onto the international scene at the 2021 Copa America in Brazil, won by Argentina after they beat the hosts — their longtime rivals — in the final. His shot-stopping abilities were complemented by his theatrical methods of intimidation.

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Messi’s “Que miras, bobo?” — “What are you looking at, fool?” — to Weghorst after the 2022 World Cup quarter-final win over the Dutch on penalties remains a big part of Argentine football culture. But Martinez became an integral part of this team from the moment 17 months earlier when he told Colombia defender Yerry Mina, “Mira que te como, hermano” in their Copa semi-final shootout — “Watch me eat you up, brother.”

Held in an empty Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brasilia due to the pandemic, Martinez’s shouts were audible to those watching the game at home.

The now-Aston Villa goalkeeper’s antics began with Davinson Sanchez — an old north London derby rival from their days with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur — on Colombia’s previous penalty, their second of the shootout. Martinez told the now Galatasaray defender, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to eat you up, brother”, before diving to his left to keep out his shot.

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Then, with the score on penalties 1-1 after Argentina’s Rodrigo De Paul also failed to score, Martinez looked to put off Mina in the same way. Again he made a fine save to his left, before celebrating by jumping into the air and producing a hip thrust.

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Emiliano Martinez: Hated by opponents, loved by Argentina, endlessly entertaining (3)

Martinez attempted to use his tricks on Colombia’s fourth taker, Miguel Borja, by telling him, “Look at me, look at me!” It didn’t work, but the ’keeper ensured his status as an instant fan favourite by keeping out a third kick of that shootout, from Edwin Cardona, to send his team through to the final at the famed Estadio Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

Martinez was accused of unsportsmanlike conduct, but his antics continued at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

In the final against reigning champions France, he baited their players during another tense penalty shootout in which he saved from Kingsley Coman on the second French kick, threw the ball away before Aurelien Tchouameni took their third and then danced when his shot went wide. Many will also remember the, uh, interesting gesture he made on the podium post-match after being handed the Golden Glove trophy as the tournament’s top goalkeeper.

The 31-year-old has coupled a brash personality with first-class goalkeeping — and people back home wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’m as Argentine as dulce de leche (caramelised milk — a popular treat in Argentina),” Martinez told ESPN in May.

Argentina has produced many great goalkeepers over the years. But none of them, other than perhaps Nery Pumpido (1983-90) or German Burgos (1995-2002), were as prickly or despised by opponents as Martinez. And none of the national team’s goalkeepers have become as globally renowned as the Villa No 1.

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Defending champions Argentina did not concede a goal in their three group games at this summer’s Copa America in the United States and Martinez is a major reason why. Sure, he hasn’t had much work to do in those matches but, when called upon, he has displayed the reflexes and elite technique of a top Premier League goalkeeper.

His point-blank save from a Stephen Eustaquio header in the 43rd minute of their opener against Canada set the tone. Opponents will have to be clinical to put one past Martinez’s near 6ft 5in (195cm) frame.

The graphic below shows the average shot distance by Argentina’s first three opponents at the tournament (Canada, then Chile and Peru).

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Lionel Scaloni’s team have done well to keep opponents’ efforts on goal away from dangerous areas.

Their expected goals (xG) per shot against number (0.07) suggests the average chance they concede is of low quality. Six of those shots were on target but they were all down the middle of the goal. Martinez has had to make saves, but they were all routine ones for a goalkeeper of his ability.

He has been helped by Argentina’s defensively sound center backs. They haven’t been tested often, but Tottenham defender Cristian Romero’s 14 tackles in the first two games say everything about their solidity. Romero has a true-tackle success rate of 93.3 per cent, meaning he has won 14 of the 15 tackles he has attempted.

Canada and Chile found some success by attacking Argentina down the wings, which exposed a weakness in their back line. Even so, they will feel confident about their quarterfinal against Ecuador in Houston, Texas, on Thursday (early Friday UK time) after a dominant start to the competition.

After that 2-0 win against Canada, Martinez revealed something that has been a thorn in his side since Argentina’s shock 2-1 loss to Saudi Arabia in their opening match in the 2022 World Cup.

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“The first two shots I faced at the World Cup, I let in,” he said. “To save the first shot today gives me a lot of confidence. I want to continue to improve. I talk often about wanting to help the team. I didn’t do that against Saudi Arabia.”

Martinez then tapped into the other side of his personality. He speaks without a filter and, after playing on a choppy grass pitch laid on top of the artificial turf at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, he let the world know exactly how he felt about it.

“We entered this game after playing some friendlies against some lower-level opponents,” Martinez said. “We faced a strong Canada team tonight on a pitch that was a disaster; honestly, it was complicated. It jumped on you as you ran. If we don’t improve things like this, the Copa America will always be below the European Championship.”

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From the outside, Martinez is perceived as bold and arrogant. In Argentina, he’s a hero.

He’s a jokester who always provides a wonderful quote for the hordes of Argentine reporters who follow the national team’s every step. After Messi, Martinez is the player in the squad who garners the most attention inside each stadium’s chaotic mixed zone.

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Martinez is playing a key role in Argentina’s Copa America defence (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

He has never played professionally in his homeland.

Having joined Independiente’s youth system in Avellaneda, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, as a child, he trialed at Arsenal as a 17-year-old and then remained in England, bouncing from loan to loan. Solid performances for those smaller clubs in the UK and Spain began to define his career, before a move to Villa in the summer of 2020, after being in the team as Arsenal won the FA Cup final weeks earlier, that has cemented him as one of the European game’s most impressive ’keepers.

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After a handful of call-ups over the previous decade that never went further than the bench, he was a backup again, to Franco Armani, when the squad gathered for two World Cup qualifiers in June 2021.

In contrast to Martinez, who was still finding his feet in the elite, Armani was the finished product. He had won multiple league titles with Colombia’s Atletico Nacional and River Plate in Argentina, including the 2016 and 2018 Copa Libertadores, South America’s version of the Champions League. He was regarded as the best goalkeeper on the continent and expected to be the one to lead Argentina to the following year’s World Cup. But a positive Covid-19 test kept Armani from playing against Chile in the first of those two matches. Martinez was called into action for his debut at 28, and hasn’t looked back since.

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He had to battle for years and wait patiently for his opportunities, a symbol of this Argentina side’s fighting spirit. He will always be considered an icon in his homeland after his dramatic save to deny France’s Randal Kolo Muani an extra-time winner in that World Cup final in Qatar. Tattoos and murals of his outstretched arms and legs as he made it appeared across Argentina. The newspaper Diario Ole called it “the save that changed history”, ending a run of lost finals for Argentina that included the 2014 World Cup and Copa America in 2015 and 2016.

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Martinez’s extra-time save from Kolo Muani in the World Cup final was instantly iconic (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

When he spoke to reporters after his team’s 1-0 win against Chile in the second game of the Copa last week, a reporter joked he had earned the cash bonus the players receive from the Argentina Football Federation.

“I come here for the glory,” Martinez replied. “I’ve never come to the national team for the money. I’ve accomplished everything at national team level — I’m always looking for things to motivate me. I want to surpass (Sergio) Romero.”

Romero, once of Manchester United and now at leading Buenos Aires side Boca Juniors, is Argentina’s most-capped goalkeeper with 96 appearances. Martinez is at 42. He is immovable as Argentina’s No 1, and you wouldn’t bet against the Villa man surpassing Romero’s figure now he has put his mind to it.

When he arrived at Independiente as a teenager, Martinez’s team-mates nicknamed him El Dibu after the freckle-faced main character of Mi Familia es un Dibujo (My Family Are A Cartoon), an Argentine television series from the mid-1990s. The nickname has stuck, although Martinez is also referred to as La Bestia (The Beast) after Messi’s assessment of him following their 2021 Copa triumph.

After Martinez’s cat-like saves had kept Chile at bay in that game in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium a week ago, he walked through the mixed zone and assured the media that Argentina would remain undefeated at the tournament.

“I asked you after the loss to Saudi Arabia how many games Argentina would play in Qatar,” a reporter asked. “You said, ‘Seven’ (meaning they would get to the final). How many games will Argentina win at this Copa America?”

“Six,” Martinez said with a wry smile, before darting away.

Six wins, you won’t be surprised to know, would see them retain their Copa title.

(Top photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Emiliano Martinez: Hated by opponents, loved by Argentina, endlessly entertaining (2024)
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