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From League Two to World Cup: Emi Martinez's extraordinary journey

18 December 2022

When Argentina goalkeeper Emi Martinez was gearing up to head out on loan to Sky Bet League Two side Oxford United, the country’s stalwart captain Lionel Messi was breaking records as Barcelona’s all-time top scorer.

And it only highlights how his has been a journey with many twists and turns. Now, Martinez is lining up alongside national teammate in the World Cup 2022 Final.

Martinez – who went by Damian Martinez back then – had his first taste of first-team football with Oxford in May 2012 when the stopper was called upon for a single-game emergency loan, which ended in a 3-0 defeat against Port Vale.

Just 24 hours after joining Oxford on loan from Arsenal, U’s manager Chris Wilder named him in the starting XI just 24 hours after arriving at the Club, who were in desperate need of a number one due to injuries to senior stoppers Ryan Clarke and Wayne Brown.

Wilder made no secret of the fact that he had wanted a more accomplished figure between the sticks with the U’s needing nothing short of three points if they had any chance of keeping their Play-Off hopes alive.

“It’s obviously a massive game and ideally someone with experience of league football is who we’d look to bring in,” Wilder explained at the time.

The now-55-year-old attempted to reach out to Arsenal to bring in soon-to-be Watford saviour Manuel Almunia for Oxford’s curtain closer with Wilder explaining that the Club had a good relationship with the Gunners, but when he was unable to come, he got relative unknown Martinez instead.

A post from the Club’s official Twitter feed encapsulated Martinez’s introduction to league football perfectly: “Martinez looks solid. Got smashed within the first few minutes though. A warm welcome to League Two.”

It was something of a learning curve for the 19-year-old, who was thrown in at the deep end as Oxford had their promotion ambitions dashed at the hands of Port Vale. In the end, the U’s finished the season in ninth, four points clear of Crewe Alexandra in seventh spot.

And if that wasn’t enough of a whirlwind experience for Martinez, between the full-time whistle at Vale Park and his next loan stint, he was involved in a League Cup 12-goal thriller, no less.

After making his Arsenal debut, his next involvement came in the Club’s famous 7-5 win over Reading in a Round Three tie, which still goes down as the highest scoring game in the competition’s history.

And it prepared him for the highs and lows of what was to come.

Later that month, his second loan spell beckoned, and it was a significant step up to the Sky Bet Championship with Sheffield Wednesday.

Despite only signing for the Owls on a 28-day agreement, much to Wednesday’s delight, he extended his stay until the end of the 2013/14 campaign, finishing the term with 15 appearances to his name, managing his first shutout in a 1-0 triumph over Watford in December.

And it was in South Yorkshire where he made his mark when Martinez joined Rotherham United for the second half of the 2014/15 campaign.

Before he was denying the Netherlands a place in the World Cup Semi-Final, the stopper was keeping out Middlesbrough for Rotherham in the 92nd minute in the Championship.

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Martinez played his part in helping the Millers preserve their second-tier status and he perfected his craft from the spot – which saw him produce two saves from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis to help his country advance from the Quarter-Final in the tournament in front of a crowd of over 88,000 people – amidst a relegation battle.

Coincidentally, Martinez came up against his former loan Club Sheffield Wednesday when he made his bow for Rotherham in March 2015 in a local affair, and although it ended in a 3-2 loss for his new temporary team, it ended in elation as Steve Evans’ side narrowly avoided the drop with a game to spare.

Martinez, who had three Premier League starts and eight first team appearances to his name when he linked up with Rotherham, impressed then-boss Evans who highlighted his “very impressive CV” for his tender years upon his signing.

Evans said at the time: “We’re going to be watching Emi on Match of the Day in six to eight months. I know for a fact he has a couple of Clubs in the top division in Spain wanting to take him on season-long loans. It wouldn’t surprise me then that if we’re not seeing him in the Premier League, we’ll be seeing him against Barcelona and Real Madrid. That’s how well he’s regarded.”

Little did Evans know he’d be seeing him perform on an even bigger stage not long after leaving the AESSEAL New York Stadium.

The following season saw Martinez head back out on loan to fellow Championship outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers and despite boasting an impressive 71% save percentage - producing two of his iconic spot-kick saves against Brighton and Hove Albion and Derby County - his time at Molineux was largely blighted by a thigh injury which kept him from getting more minutes under his belt than he would have liked.

He did, however, have more success at Reading, whom he joined in the January 2019 transfer window, turning down offers from abroad following a stint with Getafe in favour of an EFL return.

The Royals sat in 22nd place when he arrived in Berkshire and it was an end of the table that Martinez was all too familiar with. Adding five clean sheets to his tally, the keeper helped Reading escape an unfavourable fate.

And it was Martinez’s attitude and dedication to the cause which endeared him to the Royals faithful, picking up the Club's Player of the Month accolade in February and a handful of Man of the Match prizes, most notably in a 2-1 away win over Ipswich Town and a 2-2 draw with high flying Norwich City.

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“I’ve played in Spain, Argentina as well, but the Championship is the hardest league I’ve played in,” he explained at the time. “I’ve played in the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, Premier League games as well but the Championship is one of the hardest.

“You can see that, when you play well in this league, everyone talks about you. I said it in another interview, but I can play in any stage, in any team, and I will perform.

“For me, as a loanee from Arsenal, everyone’s saying about next season, but I don’t care – I just want to help keep Reading up.”

Now, Aston Villa’s Martinez has a major tournament showpiece to get ready for and the Copa America winner could be coming home from Qatar with a medal and trophy in tow but his time in the EFL helped shape him into the player that he is today; a prospective world champion.

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