Argentina 'keeper Martínez elevates cult status with yet more shootout heroics

When a team triumphs, supporters quickly credit the offensive players for their efforts on the pitch and the coach for the tactical management over the course of the 90 minutes. But a goalkeeper’s performance, no matter how great, often goes unnoticed.

Emiliano Martínez, however, leaped into the spotlight in the Copa América quarterfinals on Thursday to put aside any possibility of being labeled unsung or underrated.

His Argentina side had almost secured the ticket to the semifinals in regular time, passionately defending a 1-0 scoreline for the majority of the match. Then Kevin Rodríguez scored for Ecuador in stoppage time to make it 1-1 and force a penalty shootout.

For a moment, silence fell upon NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas before the referee confirmed the goal to send the few Ecuadorian fans into a frenzy, while the overwhelmingly pro-Argentina contingent stood in astonishment. Like the finals in 2015 and 2016 and semifinal in 2021, La Albiceleste‘s Copa América fate would be decided by spot kicks.

Argentina’s not-so-secret weapon, “Dibu” Martínez, positioned himself between the posts and instilled confidence when the team needed it most.

But up until Lisandro Martínez’s header had given Argentina the lead in the 35th minute, the offensive line had overshadowed the efforts of the defence. “Dibu” may only have made one save in the game, but he did play an important role during regular time, preserving his clean sheet almost until the end as Ecuador persistently attacked Argentina’s goal.

Argentina didn’t actually need “Dibu” when Ecuador received a penalty for a handball in regular time on 62 minutes, with Enner Valencia’s attempt hitting the post before the following-up Piero Hincapié was penalised for encroaching into the area when his effort deflected for a corner.

It was in the penalty shootout that the Aston Villa goalkeeper really stepped up to the plate, as he has done so often before. At the Copa América in 2021, he made three stops in a semifinal shootout against Colombia to clinch the ticket to the final — where they beat arch-rivals Brazil 1-0. Then, a year later at the World Cup, Martínez became a national hero. First, he made two saves against Netherlands in the quarterfinals for a 4-3 shootout success, then in the final vs. France he was iconic.

After arguing with there referee to delay Kingsley Coman from taking France’s second spot kick, Martínez dived low to his right to keep it out. Argentina won the shootout 4-2 as “Dibu” helped to lift the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

The fans celebrated each and every save in Qatar, but still it’s the attacking players that continue to be printed on every flag, displayed on every poster and worn on jerseys. Any supporter bearing the goalkeeping kit at this match would have been swamped by a sea of white and baby blue. But again on Thursday night, Martínez demonstrated once and for all why a skilled goalkeeper can be just as valuable as any field player.

The coin flip at NRG Stadium dictated La Albiceleste would shoot first. Captain Lionel Messi walked up to the spot, and rocketed the ball against the crossbar to bring back the ghosts of 2016, when he missed the first kick in the final loss to Chile. Argentina briefly lost hope, seeing the light dim with each of Messi’s slow-paced steps back to the midfield.

But Martínez quickly brought the spark back into the supporters’ eyes when diving to save from Ángel Mena. He then managed a second stop when Alan Minda stepped up, inciting a louder reaction from fans.

Once Nicolás Otamendi nailed the deciding strike, players that once kneeled together in the midfield exploded into different directions. Martínez ran to hug his teammates, danced in front of fans seated behind the goal and signaled for more cheers after propelling Argentina to life yet again.

Many burst into tears as La Albiceleste figures embraced each other. Then, regardless of the missed attempt by the captain or the decisive strike by defender Otamendi, the compliments began flowing in for “Dibu.”

“I am not a goalkeeping coach, but when a goalkeeper attempts to make a penalty save they may touch the ball but ‘Dibu’ attacks them. He makes noises when he stops them,” Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said. “Better that he’s Argentine.”

Messi added: “‘Dibu’ is always there, in these moments he becomes big. In the penalties we had a lot of faith, even before the match he joked that we should be calm if there were penalties. He always has it in his mind.”

Otamendi said: “We have an animal that is ‘Dibu,’ who is prepared for the key moments. Not just the penalties but in the key moments.”

“We have an animal between the posts,” Rodrigo De Paul echoed.

The conversation surrounding the goalkeeper continued, as his name creeped into article headlines, television recap shows and social media posts made by supporters.

The goalkeeper succeeded in making his name synonymous with Thursday night’s triumph. The game-changing efforts of “Dibu” inspired Argentina to clinch a spot in the semifinals, maximizing the importance of his skill and position. Though no team plans to be in a position to make the goalkeeper the most valuable player on the pitch, Martínez stands as a reminder that the role cannot remain undervalued.

“I work for this,” the goalkeeper said.

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