Emiliano Martinez

Emiliano Martinez was not exactly unknown to fans back home in Argentina prior to this summer’s Copa America, but he was not a household name either.

You would certainly have been hard pushed to find anyone who had heard the Aston Villa goalkeeper’s voice, and expectations when he received the call from national team coach Lionel Scaloni were far from sky-high.

Indeed, were it not for the inopportune bout of Covid-19 suffered by Franco Armani days before the Albiceleste’s first match in June, a World Cup qualifier against Chile, Martinez might even have spent a month and a half warming the bench behind the veteran River Plate stopper.

Instead, fate intervened to give Dibu his chance and, as he tends to do with almost everything that is fired his way, he grabbed it with both hands.

By mid-July, the rookie goalkeeper and ex-Arsenal understudy was a cult hero back in Argentina, as much for his now-infamous penalty antics as for the string of impeccable performances he returned on the way to Copa glory at Brazil’s expense.

Martinez’s cries of “ Mirá que te como! ” (Look, I’m going to eat you alive!) and “ Estás nervioso, eh? ” (You’re nervous, eh?) to distract Colombia’s shoot-out takers in the semi-final have already entered the rich lexicon of Argentine football, alongside such erudites as Diego Maradona – who coined the phrase ‘the Hand of God’.

And in September, he proved that he would not confine those mind games to the international stage, inviting none other than Manchester United’s penalty expert Cristiano Ronaldo to take a late spot-kick which would have cost Villa a crucial win at Old Trafford, but instead was blasted into the clouds by the forward’s rattled compatriot Bruno Fernandes.

Just like in the Copa, he celebrated with a series of suggestive pelvic thrusts, which did nothing to quell the anger of the home support – and which, less than a month before, he admitted that he regretted.

“Celebrating after stopping a penalty or talking to opponents isn’t the example I want to give to the kids,” he told El Pais. “But it was what came out at the time.

“Behind every sportsman’s success is a lot of effort and sacrifice. I left home at the age of 12 to live in the Independiente boarding house and I had to get through a lot of adversity before arriving where I am today.

“That is the message for youngsters, not a meme or celebration.”

The goalkeeper’s in-your-face public persona has done him no harm in a country which likes its shot-stoppers to come with a generous dose of eccentricity.

When the 29-year-old was a child, the Albiceleste net was occupied by Carlos Roa, who also achieved hero status thanks to his 1998 World Cup penalty saves to deny England.

Roa, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, would later hit the headlines when he retired from the game to await the apocalypse, which he believed would accompany the turn of the millennium, only to return when hellfire and brimstone did not rain down on his Cordoba ranch.

Paraguay legend Jose Luis Chilavert also spent his best years in the Argentine Primera Division with Velez Sarsfield, memorably shutting out Fabio Capello’s great AC Milan team which included Zvonimir Boban, Roberto Donadoni, Dejan Savicevic, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi to win the 1994 Intercontinental Cup.

Famed for the menacing bulldog he wore on his shirt, Chilavert also revelled in penalty intimidation, both between the posts and when taking the kick himself.

In the wake of Martinez’s actions against Colombia, he leapt to the Argentine’s defence, while providing his own anecdote from 12 yards out involving another great South American character, Rene Higuita, from a 1989 clash between Paraguay and the Cafeteros.

“The sacrifice [Martinez] made so young in leaving his family for Europe, now people only see him saving a penalty and drawing attention to himself so they say he disrespected the Colombia players, no!” he told Radio Blu. “Just the opposite, he showed personality, self-confidence and proved his quality.

“When I went up and put the ball down, Higuita came over and started telling me I was scared, pale and he was trying to make me nervous. So I laughed and he asked me, ‘what are you laughing at?’ I said I’m laughing because I’d finally found a man who was uglier than I was… I took the penalty, scored past him and we won 2-1.”

Even the best trash talk, of course, is in of itself not enough to make a great keeper. Behind Martinez’s insults lies one of the most complete, accomplished shot-stoppers in the Premier League, flourishing after years waiting for the chance to shine at the Emirates Stadium.

The Villa man’s save percentage in the 2020-21 league season was higher than any other starting No.1 in the division, while only Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy and Manchester City ace Ederson recorded more clean sheets than the Argentine’s 15 – despite facing more shots on target across the campaign than both men combined.

Having conceded 67 goals the previous term as they barely escaped relegation, a Villa backline almost unchanged from 2019-20 let in just 46 with Martinez between the posts, the seventh-best defensive performance of any Premier League team, and key to them securing a comfortable mid-table finish.

Martinez makes few mistakes, is comfortable off both feet and with both hands, and shines not just as a shot-stopper but in his aerial play, too. His distribution, while far from scintillating in comparison with some of his ball-playing peers, is solid enough to get from point A to B with limited inconvenience.

He is, in short, the kind of all-round goalkeeper that any club or nation would be blessed to count within its ranks.

For Argentina, too, he has posed a formidable obstacle between the posts.

Just four goals have slipped through Martinez’s grasp in his nine appearances to date; one of which was a penalty rebound netted by Arturo Vidal after the Chile man saw his effort saved, another was Yeferson Soteldo’s consolation spot-kick in September – one of the rare occasions his mind games have failed to yield the desired results.

All of which, added to his defiance of the Premier League’s ban on travelling to South America for September’s World Cup qualifiers which only gave a further boost to his outlaw status, means that a man who just six months ago could have walked down the streets of Buenos Aires and barely elicited a raised eyebrow from the general public now commands a following back home perhaps only surpassed by captain and national icon Lionel Messi.

Martinez himself has shared on Instagram posters hung up on the walls of schools across Argentina proclaiming: “This classroom is protected by Dibu”, accompanied by his photo and catchphrase, “Look, I’m going to eat you alive.”

Lying beneath the on-pitch bravado, though, seems to lie a modest individual with both feet planted firmly on the ground.

He is happy to admit that he ‘warmed up’ for July’s pivotal Copa America final against Brazil by spending the night playing Call of Duty with friends back in Argentina, and promises that in this current international window he will finally pluck up the courage to ask Messi for a photo.

“I want my son Santi to have it when he grows up,” he says. “I’m embarrassed to ask him because he must get asked all the time.”

If Emi has ever felt uncomfortable around Messi on the pitch, though, he has not shown it. The Argentina No.1 jersey will be his through these upcoming qualifiers against Paraguay, Uruguay and Peru, starting with Thursday’s visit to Asuncion.

If he continues to mix stellar performances with that cocky belligerence to the world’s best attackers, his star will only continue to grow with the adoring Albiceleste support.

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