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Emi Martinez: The grit and the git who won Argentina the World Cup

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Emiliano Martinez, world champion. That might have seemed far-fetched four years ago when he sat in the stands like just another Argentine fan in Russia, watching France win 4-3 in an epic World Cup knockout game.

There Martínez had told his brother sitting next to him that he would play in the next World Cup. He was ambitious to say the least. He was 25 years old then, a substitute at Getafe in his sixth loan from Arsenal; another followed at Reading, where his status improved, before an unlikely opportunity opened up at Arsenal when Bernd Leno suffered a freak injury.

By 2021 he was Argentina’s number 1 goalkeeper. A soon-to-be Copa América champion, his saves were vital in defeating Richarlison and others at the end of a tense final at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, the venue where Lionel Messi and company had lost the 2014 World Cup final. Martinez was at the heart of his salvation.

Now they have beaten France in the greatest World Cup final of all time and, by extension, perhaps the greatest game of football. It is a story, an ascent.

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Such was the range of Martinez’s unforgettable contributions to this final that it’s hard to pick a better moment. What image will be framed in his cloak?

Perhaps it’s his save to deny Randal Kolo Muani in extra time, a stellar one-stop leap that almost certainly changed the fate of this World Cup. Some of the French substitutes were already on the pitch thinking that it was all over.

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Perhaps it’s the dive save to avoid Kingsley Coman’s penalty in the shootout, an early leap of faith on his right that proved prescient. Or the even higher leap into the sky in celebration, and the dance of joy that followed. Or the leap to the right of him again when he saw Aurelien Tchouameni’s penalty whistle go past the post, because Martinez had psyched him up and that was the moment when Argentina’s momentum finally felt irreversible.

Martínez celebrates after saving a penalty in the shootout

(AP)

Or perhaps later onstage, when he was awarded the Gold Glove for his heroism. Martinez crossed the podium and proceeded to, how to say, push the award in front of the entire Lusail Stadium. The faces of the dignitaries behind him suggested that even after everything they had just witnessed, all the incredible twists and turns, they had not expected to see that.

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The impression is of an emotional and sensitive man (think of the tears he shed when Arsenal won the FA Cup 2020) with inner determination and an inner jerk; a man who tried to comfort and heartbroken Kylian Mbappe on the pitch, but later joked that he observed “a minute’s silence for Mbappe” while Argentina laughed and danced in his dressing room.

His stupidity during the penalty shootout, waiting until Tchouameni had walked to the penalty spot before flicking the ball the other way, was mean-spirited, perhaps even unsportsmanlike. But it was also undeniably cunning, a way of stretching out the moment, of igniting the wall of Argentine anger in the stands behind him, a way of asserting power. And it worked.

Their fury after Argentina’s win over the Netherlands had come to encapsulate this team, and as strange as it may seem 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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