Emi Martínez Saved Argentina From Itself
6:31 PM EST on December 9, 2022
One of the most righteous things about soccer is that, somehow and somewhere, there is always a chance for redemption. It may not come immediately, but it eventually arrives all the same. For Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez, that redemption came faster than anyone rooting for the Albiceleste could have expected, but the man nicknamed Dibu stepped up to the excruciating moment that is a penalty shootout, and redeemed himself and his country all the way into the World Cup semifinals.
There was a whole lot of soccer before the shootout between Argentina and the Netherlands, and I mean that both in terms of time—with stoppage times tallied up, Friday's quarterfinal reached about 143 minutes of play—and chaos. It started, as it often does, with Lionel Messi. There's little for Messi to prove in his already all-time great career, but that doesn't mean he can't use this stage, his last time at the World Cup, to continue bending the parameters of reality.
In this case, watch his pass to Nahuel Molina for Argentina's opener:
Here, watch it again:
OK, one more angle:
That is the type of ball that maybe five players in the history of soccer could play with any consistency, but Messi makes it look like it's as easy as a ten-foot backpass. (Credit to Molina for the tough finish, as well.) From there, it looked like Argentina might go on to punish the Netherlands's general stoicness in defense by simply being more incisive. The second goal also felt like that: Marcos Acuña found himself with the ball inside the Dutch box and after a nifty cutback onto his right foot, he found himself on the ground courtesy of a clumsy challenge from the hero of the Netherlands's round of 16 match against the United States, Denzel Dumfries.
Up stepped Messi, hero in so many ways except from the penalty spot—you may recall he missed one from the spot in the decisive group stage match against Poland. This time, thankfully for the blue-and-white clad contingent in Lusail, Messi did not miss.
So, that looked to be it. Argentina had been on the front foot for much of the game, battling the Netherlands's suffocating defense and also the antics of referee Mateu Lahoz (who, it must be said, was also a thorn in the side of the Dutch side), and coming out on top. A trip to the semifinals and a match-up against Croatia seemed all but certain, and Argentina decided it was comfortable enough with its 2–0 lead to turtle up and let time expire.
Yeah, about that:
Here is where Emi Martínez comes into play: What the hell was he doing on this goal? He appears to first think about coming out to retrieve the ball, but then realizes he's in no man's land and backpedals. That backpedal cost him the momentum needed to react to Wout Weghorst's header as it bounced to the goalie's right and into the net, giving the Netherlands some hope.
It was OK, though. There was time left, but surely not enough for the Netherlands to dig deep into manager Louis van Gaal's bag of tricks for an elaborate and outrageously brave set piece gambit that would once again leave Martínez out to dry and the Netherlands in euphoric ecstasy as the clock turned over into the 100th minute of regular time. Right?
Once again, Martínez was completely wrong-footed by a Dutch attack, though in his defense, so was the entirety of Argentina's XI minus Enzo Fernández, who was simply caught behind Weghorst before he shot. Still, for a goalie as mercurial and emotional as Martínez, giving up two goals in which he probably knows he could have done better would have been a nightmare with extra time, and penalties, looming.
Luckily for him and Argentina, it was the Albiceleste who grabbed control of the match once again in the extra 30 minutes, and especially during the second period of extra time, once Ángel Di María came in. Argentina had so many chances in that time, all of them coming just close enough to give heart palpitations without actually going.
There was a Lautaro Martínez shot that hit Virgil van Dijk straight in the chest, and a deflected wobble from Argentina's breakout star and second-best performer Enzo Fernández that just missed knuckling into the net:
Perhaps most heart-stopping of all, Fernández hit the post with Argentina's last kick of the match, just missing a chance to avoid penalty shootout agony.
The cruelest way for this to end was always on penalties, the glorified coin flip that it is. Suddenly, the focus shifted to the duo of Martínez and his Dutch counterpart, the massive 6-foot-8 Andries Noppert. It would be fair to say that Martínez likely had his two goal-allowing mistakes in the back of his mind, but it would also be fair to say that he is a wildman; it's certainly possible he blacked those completely out before the shootout. Whatever the case, there he was, just as he was in the Copa América last summer against Colombia, spouting off what was probably some grade-A shit talk to the Dutch team who may or not may not understand Spanish. If there is a goalie built, mentally, for a shootout in a win-or-go-home World Cup match, it's Martinez, and he did not disappoint:
Those two saves, some of the best I have ever seen in a penalty shootout (particularly the second one against Steven Berghuis, which Martínez saved his the bottom of his palm at full stretch), gave Argentina just enough cushion. Despite Enzo Fernández missing his penalty—allow me a brief aside to condemn any and all sorts of stupid run-ups when taking penalties; either run up and blast it, or do a stutter right before placing the ball in a corner—Lautaro Martínez, so often the goat in this tournament for Argentina's attack, smashed the fifth and decisive spot kick to send the Albiceleste to a date with Croatia. (And not, it must be said, Brazil, which is probably what every neutral and TV executive hoped for; at least Argentina had Messi go first in the shootout, unlike its hated rivals with Neymar.)
That Emi Martínez was not only given the chance to make up for his errors in the same game but also overcome them and lead his team to victory is one of the best moments of this tournament to date. He knew it too, celebrating like a madman after Argentina won, ripping his jersey off in near-tears. Soccer goalie is a lonely position, and one that opens a player up to a lot of blame and only rare chances for all the glory. When it happens, as it did for Martínez, it's worth every fuck-up tenfold, and Argentina is moving on in large part to their maniacal goalkeeper and his pair of history-altering saves.