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03rd Aug 2020

It was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s final but Emiliano Martinez’s moment

Saturday will be remembered as the 'Aubameyang final', but it was Emiliano Martinez's tears that captured something more profound.

Nooruddean Choudry

‘Football without fans is nothing.’

Sadly, it is an idiom that has become increasingly more literal than figurative in recent months. As we all do our best to cope with the current reality – or to use that hideous term, ‘the new normal’ – football gives us the illusion of that elusive normalcy. We can forget about R numbers and second waves and sickening death tolls for a short while and pretend that the random path of stitched leather matters a jot. It takes us back to that idyllic recent past when heat maps signified average player movements rather than hot spots of infection. So desperate are we to buy into a collective and wilful delusion that we think little of virtual crowds cheering and booing events on the pitch as if they weren’t algorithmic fakery. Still, as much as we will ourselves to be fooled, it’s not the same. Empty stands act as haunted monuments to the devastating now, as reality bites with each vacant seat. Nowhere more so than Wembley on Cup Final day.

But as much as the national stadium echoed with an overwhelming absence, and the fans felt more removed than ever, one intensely personal moment was transcendent. It was universal in its intimacy and captured a moment in history that will hopefully never be repeated. If this is to be the one and only ghost cup final, then the quiet tears of Emiliano Martinez defined the day. To see the resilient Argentine cut a tired and emotional figure on the Wembley turf as he FaceTimed his family was to strip away all the hype and pomposity of the modern game and bare its soul. A decade of trying was worth it in that moment, every sacrifice rewarded. Of course it was great to see the calamitous celebrations of his teammates, as they treated their newly acquired silverware like complex Jenga. But there’s a special resonance in the space between ecstasy and melancholy. Nothing is more powerful than the vindication of a sad story; the sense that previous struggle forged something virtuous and true.

Even the most closed-minded xenophobe would do well to ignore the humanity of Martinez’s moment. This is a player who left his parents Susana and Alberto in floods of tears as a homesick 17-year-old to fulfil his sporting destiny in Europe. They made tough sacrifices for him and his brother Alejandro growing up, ensuring their sons could eat even when they could not. But a young Emiliano had to turn his back on the unconditional love of his doting parents to prove such selflessness worthwhile. At Arsenal, nothing came easy. The following decade of stop-start opportunities must have left the lanky Argentine questioning his life choices. He would arbitrarily rise and fall down the pecking order between second choice and fourth with potential still untapped. Loaned out more times than a pawnshop fiver, Martinez would have been forgiven for cutting his losses and giving up. But he had the stubborn tenacity and unerring self-belief to defy logic and continue fighting. The weekend was his reward.

Of course Saturday’s record-breaking victory will be remembered as the ‘Aubameyang final’. Since the days of Stanley Matthews we have have been consumed with assigning ownership of the day to a particular shining light. And of course the mercurial Gabonese deserves effusive praise for his match-winning turn. But it was Martinez’s tears that captured something more profound. As voyeuristic as it felt to zoom in on such an intensely personal moment, it also struck a chord – now more than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has dislocated us all from our most cherished and meaningful relationships. As such, nothing during Saturday’s coverage was more relatable than a man crying whilst talking to his loved ones on the phone. Granted, not all of us can boast an FA Cup winner’s medal, but we are all experiencing seminal moments in our lives without the people we would normally share them with. Intense highs and lows are being endured alone. The scant consolation of making remote connection over dodgy wifi is being replicated around the country every single day.

Football without fans is nothing. A game played out to an empty stadium can feel hollow and unfulfilled. Those of us accustomed to the matchday ritual are robbed of that privilege, whilst others are mugged of vicarious pleasure. But moments of true humanity can still bring us together. We can still feel close without being able to physically touch – even if there’s a cruel pain attached to that. As we rightfully moan about how the modern game is rubbish in many ways, and more removed from the fans than ever, there are still moments to cherish for their innate pureness. Emiliano Martinez’s post-match tears will live long in the memory for that exact reason.

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