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Emiliano Martinez's shoot-out shenanigans take gamesmanship to a new level

Emiliano Martinez's shoot-out shenanigans take gamesmanship to a new level - Reuters/Molly Darlington
Emiliano Martinez's shoot-out shenanigans take gamesmanship to a new level - Reuters/Molly Darlington

Emiliano Martinez once conceded three goals at Port Vale on loan for Oxford United, and that was only 10 years ago, which just goes to show that the psychology of a goalkeeper is built over many different experiences. In those days he was called Damian on a teamsheet but Emi – the abbreviation of his middle name that he goes by – is a different guy.

Would Damian have taken the golden glove trophy handed to him by the Emir of Qatar and placed it on his groin as he walked past the World Cup trophy with the eyes of the globe upon him? Winning a World Cup final can do strange things to a man. The man from Aston Villa had put it all on the line in the penalty shoot-out. He had danced like Alan Pardew. He had been pushed back forcibly by the Polish referee Szymon Marciniak to take his place on the goal line. He had watched as two French penalty-takers had wilted in his glare.

Martinez has set a new bar for what devotees of the 21st century culture of badinage like to describe as s---housery. Depending on where you stand on that kind of gamesmanship then that bar is either set very high, or very, very, low.

There was a moment before Aurelien Tchouameni’s off-target penalty when Martinez threw the ball away from the Frenchman and the referee. By the time he was refusing to budge from the penalty spot for Randal Kolo Muani’s subsequent penalty, the last of France’s four, Marciniak could feel himself losing control. He walked Martinez backwards and when that proved ineffective he booked the goalkeeper. The penalty was scored but the damage was already done.

Martinez is a great goalkeeper when it comes to penalties and the rest, and the Argentine nation will not quibble with the means by which he introduces doubt to the opponent. Against the Netherlands in the quarter-finals it felt like a reasonably fair exchange of unpleasantries. This time Martinez’s behaviour was uncomfortable. The penalty shoot-out is a cruel test and no-one understands this better than the professionals themselves. They deserve from each other some basic level of respect in the moment.

Some will say that when it comes to that level of gamesmanship, the end justifies the means. They may even say that no-one remembers the details. But this was a World Cup final and everyone will remember the details.

Martinez’s performance was more than the penalty shoot-out. His save in the final minute of extra time from Kolo Muani was one of the great moments of goalkeeping improvisation. Arms and legs thrown wide, hurtling towards the French substitute to close down the angle available. This was a great goalkeeper at work. His career is a testament to perseverance. A lifetime spent at Arsenal in order never to win that No 1 shirt. In 10 years at the club as a professional he played just 38 times.

Emi Martinez made a superb save to deny Randal Kolo Muani at the end of extra-time - Reuters/Molly Darlington
Emi Martinez made a superb save to deny Randal Kolo Muani at the end of extra-time - Reuters/Molly Darlington

He went on loan at Oxford, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Getafe and Reading. He speaks English like an Englishman. At Villa, where he moved permanently in 2020, he is a first choice at last. There are a lot of lost years in that career but when it comes to a night like this then perhaps they were all worth it.

In his international life there were eight years between his first call-up for the Argentina squad in 2011 and his second in 2019. He made his debut for the team in June last year and his second cap was in the Copa America. That was the tournament which Argentina went on to win and in which Martinez played a key role.

Messi himself seems to admire the new goalkeeper by his side and it was to Martinez that he turned in the moment of victory over the Netherlands. Four years ago, Martinez played his single game of the season for Arsenal in the Europa League at home to Qarabag of Azerbaijan. By January he was off to Reading in the Championship. Now he is friends with the greatest player on earth and a World Cup winner.

This is one of the great World Cup stories, of the understudy suddenly elevated to a place in history. There will have been many more games in many alternative goalkeeping careers but none quite like this one in Doha on the last Sunday of the 22nd World Cup finals.

Martinez has in the recent past saved a Copa America penalty from Colombia’s Yerry Mina in the semi-final of the competition. He asked Bruno Fernandes to give the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo last season and when the younger man took it himself he missed the target. These are all part of building the mythology and no doubt that all the French penalty-takers were well aware of what they would face in Martinez. That they knew and yet still failed tells you the potency of it.