Watching the aftermath of Argentina’s World Cup triumph, we couldn’t help but feel a deep, deep sense of injustice.
You see, while Emiliano Martinez was lauded as a national hero for getting his team to the final and then winning it for them, the man who put him on the path to glory got none of the credit.
While a certain former Manchester City striker was allowed to lift the trophy and join in the celebrations despite having absolutely nothing to do with his country becoming world champions, this poor soul was all but forgotten.
You’ve probably heard of the butterfly effect, the idea that one small action can cause something much bigger, that a butterfly flapping its wings at a certain time and place can cause a tornado, for instance.
Well, in the summer of 2020, a proverbial butterfly flapped its proverbial wings, and his name was Neal.
It was the summer of 2020, and in the same way that the pandemic had left everyone stuck at home, Bernd Leno had left Martinez stuck on the Arsenal bench.
The Argentine returned to the club at the start of the season after enjoying an excellent loan spell at Reading but had since only played a handful of cup matches with Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta both preferring Leno.
If he was to achieve his dream of playing for his country at the World Cup, he needed to start playing, but it was hard to see him doing so with his fellow goalkeeper performing well.
Then, 40 minutes into Arsenal’s trip to Brighton at the beginning of Project Restart, Neal Maupay and Leno challenged for a high ball, and the contact between the two caused the German to injure his knee, ruling him out for the season.
In his absence, Martinez was given a chance between the sticks, and he took it. In the eight remaining matches of the Premier League season, he was excellent, keeping three clean sheets and averaging four saves per game, also playing a big part in his team’s FA Cup triumph. His performances didn’t go unnoticed…
Despite his strong displays, it looked like Martinez would return to the bench the following season, but then Aston Villa came to his rescue, signing him for around £20m.
For the first time in his career, Martinez was now the first-choice goalkeeper at a top-flight club, and he quickly began to establish himself as one of the Premier League’s best.
Calls for him to be given his Argentina debut began to grow, and it felt like it would only be a matter of time before they’d be answered.
To the annoyance of Aston Villa and Argentina fans alike, Martinez was left on the bench for his nation’s final four matches of 2021, playing second fiddle to Franco Armani.
At the end of the season though, he was finally given the chance to represent his country, starting in the World Cup qualifiers against Chile and Colombia.
It couldn’t come at a better time, with steady performances in those matches convincing Lionel Scaloni to make him the team’s first-choice goalkeeper for the Copa America that started just over a week later.
The long-awaited start to his international career proved to be even better than he would have dreamed of as he helped his country win their first trophy since 1993.
Martinez was one of their stand-out players in their Copa America triumph, keeping four clean sheets, conceding just two goals and saving three penalties in the semi-final shootout against Colombia.
His efforts saw him named the best goalkeeper at the tournament and, more importantly, ensured he’d be Scaloni’s first-choice between the sticks going forward.
By the time the World Cup came around, Martinez had established himself as Argentina’s goalkeeper, but he made a somewhat disappointing start to the tournament, making just two saves in the first four matches with three efforts going past him.
He wasn’t able to make any from open play against the Netherlands either, failing to prevent the Dutch from fighting back from 2-0 down to take the game to penalties. In that shootout though, he came alive.
The 30-year-old saved the first two penalties he faced, from Virgil van Dijk and Steven Berghuis, and those saves ultimately sent Argentina through to the semi-finals where they’d beat Croatia 3-0.
In a carbon copy of the Netherlands match, Martinez was unable to prevent his team throwing away a 2-0 lead in the last 10 minutes of the World Cup final.
He was able to prevent them losing in the final minute of extra time though, making one of the best – if not most important – saves ever when Randal Kolo Muani went through on goal, and he wasn’t done there.
Martinez saved just the one penalty in the shootout this time around, but that was enough for his country to become world champions.
It’s fair to say they wouldn’t have done so without him, and therefore – by extension – wouldn’t have done so without Neal Maupay.
His Argentinian mother will be a proud woman, although he might not be too popular in his homeland of France.
The history books won’t remember the part you played Neal, but we will.