Matt Maher: Never give up the dream – Emi Martinez is living proof
While signing Emi Martinez in the first place was a smart move, convincing the goalkeeper to agree a new long-term contract was possibly Villa’s best business of 2022.
Nearly 11 months on from putting pen to paper on a five-and-a-half-year deal, the Argentina international’s star is soaring at Qatar 2022.
Barring any late misfortune, Martinez will on Sunday make a little piece of history as the first Villa player – and indeed the first active player from any West Midlands club – to play in a World Cup final.
With that, of course, comes added attention. Villa supporters following the internet transfer rumour mill ahead of the January window will have noted a definite uptick in wild whispers about their goalkeeper over recent days. One Italian website yesterday rather ambitiously claimed Juventus were preparing to offer US midfielder Weston McKennie in a swap deal.
Almost all of the stories, at this stage, can be filed under nonsense. Villa do not want to sell Martinez. He has no desire to leave.
His burgeoning reputation, however, significantly increases the likelihood of genuine suitors emerging in the not-too-distant future. Just as well, then, Villa acted so shrewdly in getting the player now comfortably their most lucrative asset on a lengthy contract. Whatever interest Martinez may generate, the club are in a very strong position. They can celebrate his success in Qatar knowing his growing value is protected.
Martinez’s journey to World Cup hero has been nothing short of remarkable and a valuable lesson in why you should never give up on a dream. Raised in a poor neighbourhood of the coastal city Mar Del Plata, he is far from the first player whose footballing ability has helped transform the life of his family beyond recognition.
Yet there can be few others who have seen their career enjoy such a rapid acceleration at a relatively late stage.
When the last World Cup took place in Russia, Martinez was considering giving up the game for good after a nightmare season spent on loan at Getafe. As recently as June 2020, the one-time Wolves loanee remained very much Arsenal’s back-up until an injury to Bernd Leno provided the opportunity he had been waiting for. Within a couple of months, Martinez had helped the Gunners win the FA Cup and Community Shield before a £20million switch to Villa allowed him to establish himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League.
His rise in international football, meanwhile, might only be described as meteoric. Martinez did not make his senior debut for Argentina until June last year and only then because of an injury to Franco Armani. Once again, he grasped his chance, cementing his position by saving three penalties in a semi- final shoot-out win over Colombia en route to Argentina’s first Copa America title since 1993.
“We have one of the best goalkeepers in the world,” claimed Lionel Messi after Martinez racked up another clean sheet last October. That is quite the endorsement. Last Friday, Martinez was the first team-mate Messi embraced following his heroics in the quarter-final shoot-out win over the Netherlands.
Martinez will now provide the first West Midlands interest in a World Cup final since Wolverhampton’s Jack Taylor refereed West Germany’s win over the Dutch in 1974.
There have been several near misses on the playing side. Wolves legend Ron Flowers was famously told to be ready to play by Alf Ramsey on the eve of the 1966 final, after illness briefly put Jack Charlton’s participation at Wembley in doubt.
In 1990, David Platt and Steve Bull came within a penalty shoot-out of reaching the final while, as international players have flooded the English game, there have been agonising semi-final exits for Villa’s Alpay Ozalan and Ron Vlaar, with Turkey in 2002 and the Netherlands in 2014 respectively. Otherwise, World Cup finalists or winners have always arrived in the region after the event. Blues signed Alberto Tarantini six months after he had helped Argentina become world champions in 1978, with Christophe Dugarry turned up at St Andrew’s three-and-a-bit years after coming on as a second-half substitute in the final of France ‘98.
Quite how much support Martinez will have round these parts on Sunday beyond those who typically roar him on for Villa is questionable. The keeper’s confident approach means he is never going to be a player who, to put it politely, is everyone’s cup of tea.
Yet it is important to point out his antics during last Friday’s quarter-final were borne not from a lack of respect for the opposition but the desire to gain every possible advantage and an acceptance he is at his best when emotions are high.
“I don’t like to see Emi play dull,” explained Villa’s former goalkeeping coach Neil Cutler, a man who knows him better than most, during a recent interview.
“The point you need to get Emi to is when his confidence is verging on arrogance.”
It is the same belief which kept Martinez going through the years when it appeared his career might never take off. After all the sacrifices and the setbacks, this proud Argentinian is now just one win away from sporting immortality in his homeland.