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The long trip to stardom for Argentina’s top goalkeeper: Dibu Martinez confirms elite status at Qatar 2022

“It was not a poor, poor background but my family struggled a lot in financial terms. I arrived back in Argentina and, a week after, I had the offer from Arsenal. I saw my brother and mum cry, saying: ‘Please don’t go.’ But I had also seen my dad crying late at night because he could not pay the bills. So I had to be brave at the time, because I said ‘yes’ for them,” said Emiliano Martinez in an interview for “The Guardian” in 2020.

In fact, his family was so poor that they could not afford to buy him gloves to become a goalkeeper, and could only rely on the cheapest product on the market. This is why many of his former colleagues laughed at him. But Martinez was not deterred. He was determined. And after a long, long way, he finally is considered a star and one of Argentina’s best players.

Born in Mar del Plata, some 400 kilometres away from Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires, Martinez moved to Independiente Avellaneda when he was only 16 years old, but his reputation was already good, having featured in the Under-17 and Under-20 national teams of Argentina.

He was soon identified as a player with huge potential by Arsenal, the Premier League giant, who had a penchant for scouting young goalkeepers with a huge upside and molding them into superstars. Indeed, at 17 years old, Martinez was invited to sign for Arsenal and with his family in mind, he said yes immediately.

It did not matter that he did not speak a bit of English, it did not matter that he was going thousands of kilometres away. It looked to be the right decision and, in fact, it was. However, until reaching the point of stardom, Martinez had to grind, work harder and harder and wait for his chance.

While he signed for Arsenal in 2012, as a 17-year-old, he only played 15 times in the Premier League for the “Gunners”, having spent stints on loan in the second and third English leagues – at Oxford United, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United, Wolverhampton and Reading – but also in Spain’s La Liga, at Getafe.

Martinez received blow after blow and his love of football was gone for good. It was a difficult moment, especially as he had his first son, Santi, in those years.

“I don’t think you prepare for not playing, I always thought I had the talent but at some stage in my career when I was 22, 23 and I wasn’t playing, I went on my first loan to Spain, I played only six games. Then I knew I would have to go back to Arsenal and they wouldn’t give me a chance, so I would have to go on loan, so those years were really difficult, at some point I stopped loving football,” said Martinez for Football Daily.

“That was something I was worried about, I told my wife, ‘I know I’m not playing but I’ve stopped watching football games,’ so it wasn’t an easy place to be. Then I went on loan again to Reading in the Championship, a league which I didn’t want to be in. I put myself in a position: I have a newborn baby, this is going to be my last loan. I got that in my head, I started with a psychologist that helped me through my bad moment, it helped me to get past my frustrations,” added the Argentinian goalkeeper.

But finally, a ray of light came. Nicknamed “Dibu”, the Spanish for “drawing”, after an animated character in the Argentine tv soap opera “Mi familia es un dibujo”, became a starter for Arsenal after Bernd Leno’s injury and started to get rave reviews. On 1 August 2020, he had a superb game in the FA Cup Final against Chelsea, helping Arsenal win the trophy.

It was Martinez’s first trophy as a starter for Arsenal and that enabled him to become even better and better and the first choice for Argentina in the 2021 Copa America.

From an afterthought to a nation’s hero, Martinez made all the steps, but finally fulfilled his potential in that tournament, after he had already left Arsenal and joined Aston Villa, in a $30 million move.

After making his debut for Argentina in June 2021, he became the first choice for Argentina at Copa America later that month and never looked back. In the semi-final of the tournament, he saved three penalties in the win against Colombia, 3-2. He also had a clean sheet in the 1-0 win against Brazil in the final and was awarded the “Golden Glove” of the tournament.

Back at Qatar 2022, Argentina would have not made it for the quarter-finals, were it not for Martinez, who had a last-gasp save in the 96th minute against Garang Kuol. Martinez held the fort and the 2-1 win and the South American side are now between the best eight teams in the world.

“We have “Dibu” who is a total phenomenon. He is a top guy, he deserves it,” said Lionel Messi, Argentina’s talisman about the goalkeeper.

Sure, after a long trip, and grueling years, Martinez is now living the dream. His love for Argentina is unparalleled, surely, having even died his hair in the colours of his country. Yet his journey is what really matters.

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