At the end of Arsenal’s record-extending FA Cup triumph in front of no fans at Wembley, there was a poignant moment. The Gunners’ goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, who was once again brilliant between the goalposts, was sitting alone with his back to the advertising board beyond the sidelines. He had his earphones on, held a phone in his hand, and with tears in his eyes, was speaking presumably to folks back home in Argentina.
For Martinez, being alone is not a new feeling in London. He has been used to it. But this was different. After celebrating a well-earned success with his teammates, this was the sort of loneliness he would cherish, reflecting on what has been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride.
For Arsenal’s Argentine goalkeeper, it has been a case of overcoming obstacle after obstacle before having his moment in the spotlight.
Did you know? Martinez is now the longest-serving player left at Arsenal. A decade ago, after a successful trial, Arsenal offered him the chance to move to London and he had to make a decision.
“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,” he was quoted as saying by the Guardian.
The 27-year-old has been with the club for 10 years now. But incredibly, before the restart of the current season, had played just 25 matches for the North London giants. He was always in the background. He was always fighting for the second or third slots. He was loaned out six times. He was seen as a really good goalkeeper but just not as good as Wojciech Szczęsny or Petr Cech or Bernd Leno.
He had to wait.
And wait some more.
As is often the case in team sport, one athlete’s success story has its origins in the misfortune of another. Injury, lack of form or plain bad luck for one sportsperson can be the turning for another.
For Martinez, who was now the established second-choice at Arsenal, that break came in the form of an injury to No 1 Bernd Leno, who himself was having a stellar season. Arsenal’s results for the most part of 2019-’20 were abysmal but Leno was living up to his billing as a star goalkeeper. He was often the difference between a draw and a heavy defeat.
But, after the Premier League’s restart, Leno suffered a nasty knee injury during a disappointing defeat against Brighton. And, suddenly, Martinez was first-choice.
He impressed match after match and by the end of the FA Cup semi-final against Manchester City when he kept a clean sheet at Wembley, it dawned on him. After all these days at the club, he had led his team to the FA Cup final,
“It was a bit emotional [when the final whistle went in the semi-final]. Not because we beat City, who for me are one of the best teams in Europe right now, but more because of how much I have been fighting to play in a final with the club I love.
“It has been 10 years since I joined the club and at the final whistle, everything goes through your head. I wish the fans and my family would be here for the final, obviously with 90,000 or 80,000 people in Wembley, something you don’t play every day.
“I wish my whole family was there. Like I said, we came from a poor, poor family and for them to see me there winning a trophy in front of 90,000 people and getting a medal would be something.
“I remember for my Champions League debut against Anderlecht, my Dad flew 27 hours to reach that game and he was crying all 95 minutes. I remember the day that I and my brother ate and not my mum and dad. So I know exactly what they’ve been through.”
“I was living in Buenos Aires and I would only see them twice a month, when I travelled, because they couldn’t afford the petrol to go and see me. So I know what they did for me to reach the top where I am now.”— via Arsenal / Twitter
With those sort of emotions behind his big day, Martinez understandably was overcome with emotion after keeping Chelsea at bay to help Arsenal finish a sorry season on a high note.
“That’s what I do best, I work hard and everyone says when you work hard you get your rewards and I think I did that today. I’ve worked really hard at the club for 10 years for opportunities like this. I couldn’t be prouder. I spoke to [my family] the whole week and my dad didn’t want to speak a lot about it because he was too nervous, but I bet in Argentina they were all crying, 100%,” he told Arsenal.com after the final.
And those would have been tears of joy, of realising that Martinez has made it to the big stage, of knowing their sacrifices have been worth it, of finding out that the reward for hard work and patience is as sweet as it gets.
When his chances came, Martinez grabbed them with both his hands.