EXCLUSIVE - Inside the mind of a World Cup winner: Emi Martinez on the 'chaos' of Qatar, the pressure of penalties and 'completing football' with Lionel Messi
Emi Martinez points at the blank space on his office wall, just above the computer desk. “Here, I will put the shirt from the game, with the medal and my gloves,” he says. “That’s the final piece of the jigsaw!”
‘The game’ he refers to, of course, is the biggest game of all. The World Cup final, in which Martinez was the hero as Lionel Messi’s Argentina defeated Kylian Mbappe’s France in Qatar’s Lusail Stadium.
“A dream come true,” is how the Aston Villa goalkeeper describes it, settling in for an exclusive, half-hour interview with GOAL. “People say that, I know, but dreams actually do come true. I finished the final and I said ‘I’ve done it, I’ve completed football!’”
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It’s hard to argue, even if at 30, Martinez is a relative latecomer to the world stage.His wall already, for example, contains mementoes and memories from the FA Cup final, won with Arsenal in 2020, and from the 2021 Copa America, in which he played a starring role. There are also pictures of Martinez celebrating alongside Messi at Wembley, after Argentina had beaten Italy in the ‘Finalissima’ last June.
“I remember speaking to Leo during the World Cup,” Martinez says. “I said ‘we won the Copa America in Brazil after 28 years, and we won the Finalissima at Wembley against the Champions of Europe’. And he said ‘to complete football, we have to win the World Cup against the World Champions!’
“And guess what? We did it!”
Argentina’s success in Qatar was remarkable, built as much on togetherness and spirit as much as Messi’s magical, mercurial talents. They lost their opening group match in shocking circumstances against Saudi Arabia, but grew into the tournament superbly thereafter. They may have needed penalty shootouts in both the quarter-finals and the final, but few could argue that they were deserving champions.
“It was chaos,” Martinez says now, close to three months on. “We were so close to going home, so I couldn’t really enjoy it.
“Then after the Croatia game, we had three or four days before the final. And when I was training, yes I was trying to build my game and make sure I was good, but at the same time I didn’t want to get injured! I didn’t want to fully extend or damage my shoulder. I was scared, you know?
“The day before the game, I actually asked the goalkeeper coach ‘can we just do head tennis?’ I wanted to take my mind off the game, I didn’t even want to do set-pieces. Nothing where I was thinking about tomorrow.”
Whatever Martinez did worked. On game day, he was a picture of focus. Mbappe may have beaten him three times, but his save from Randal Kolo Muani in the last minute of extra time might just be the best and most important in the history of the game. “A good one, yes,” he smiles, with impressive understatement.
Then came the shootout, and another demonstration of the way this softly-spoken, affable character can morph into something entirely different. A caricature, if you will; a gurning, dancing, wind-up merchant, intent on stretching his opponents’ mental toughness to the limit with his antics.
Martinez has come to be associated with penalties, and with gamesmanship. His behaviour has attracted criticism, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic particularly vocal, and no doubt played a part in suggestions that UEFA will alter the rules surrounding shootouts, with goalkeepers set to be banned from distracting takers.
Listening to his explanation, though, it is hard not to feel a degree of understanding.
“When it goes to penalties, it’s a different game,” he says. “It’s me against the striker, and me against the [other] goalie. Some people will never understand that, because they want the goalie to stand on the line and dive, and that’s it. But the players can jump, they can slow down, they can celebrate in your face, they can slide, they can dance. And we just have to pick the ball out of the net and throw it back to them? I don’t get it.”
His aim, he says, is not simply to rattle opponents, as he clearly did with France’s Aurelien Tchouameni in the final, but to give his team-mates as much of an edge as possible.
“Imagine for them in a World Cup quarter-final or final, and we are leading by two penalties,” he says. “The one who is going to take the next one, the pressure comes right down.
“That’s what I try to do as a goalkeeper, generate pressure and remove pressure. Normally, we never have pressure. But when the other goalkeeper saves a penalty, and he starts to dance and jump up and down, it brings you down a little bit. That’s what I try to generate.”
Martinez works with a psychologist, David Pressley, whom he met while on loan at Getafe from Arsenal, aged 24. He credits Pressley with balancing out his "big lows" and "massive highs", enabling him to think clearly in pressure situations - such as penalty shootouts.
Plenty do not like the persona he takes on, but there is no question that his methods work, even if some players are immune.
“You can’t do it for everyone,” he admits. “You have to see the moment. If you look at Mbappe, he scored three penalties in the final and I didn’t say anything. [Virgil] van Dijk, I didn't say anything and I saved it.
“But when I see a little bit of fear, or when the player knows that if they miss they are out, or a miss gives us an 80 percent chance of winning, that’s when the chaos starts! I start whipping the crowd, I start doing what I do.
“I need to save this penalty, you know? I need to put pressure on him. Creating that gives me confidence, and then I guess a side and my timing is great. Every time I do it, it’s like you are what you believe. At that moment, I’m like ‘there’s no way he’s going to score!’ or ‘there’s no way he’s going left, he’s going right’
“With Tchouameni in the final. I knew he was going low to my right, right to the corner. The goalie is big, [Kingsley Coman] just missed the last penalty, so he had to hit it right to the side netting.
“He missed. But if it was on target, I would have saved it. I celebrated it like a goal, because I knew he had pressure, I knew he would go low to my right and I would have got there. For me it was like a save.”
Martinez smiles as he remembers the aftermath. A picture on his wall, given to him outside Villa Park by a fan, shows him grinning uncontrollably as he speaks to his family on Facetime. The Golden Glove, awarded to the tournament’s top goalkeeper, sits proudly on his desk, alongside the one from the Copa America.
The parade back home was staggering, with millions of fans taking to the streets of Buenos Aires to greet their heroes. The crowds were such that the planned bus tour had to be completed by helicopter.
“We arrived back at around 4am and there were people camping outside the airport!” Martinez laughs. “I think there were two million fans from the airport to the training ground, which is only 1.5 miles! At 4am!
“The following day, we were doing the big parade to Buenos Aires. But it took us five hours to get to the training ground! The capital was an hour away, so imagine how long it would have taken us to get there! It was incredible.
“To see the people, the kids crying, people throwing things, you see so many fans singing and crying. I’m 30 now, but I think when I am 70 or 80 I will see these images from that day, for sure.”
For now, though, the time for reflection is over. Club football is back at the top of his agenda, and having done the hard yards earlier in his career, when he turned out for the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Oxford United, Rotherham United and Reading, Martinez is eager to make up for lost time with Villa.
He’d love to play Champions League football, of course, and love even more to win a trophy. “My best years are ahead of me,” he says. “I say I’ve completed football, but I haven’t yet. Not quite.”
Looking at his wall of fame, and the blank space that will soon be filled, it would be easy to beg to differ...