Lautaro Martinez: Argentina's Copa America top scorer who almost always has the last laugh

Lautaro Martinez used to sleep on a lower bunk in one of the dormitories at the Casa Tita Mattiussi. He scribbled his name on one of the wooden slats of the bed frame above.

It wasn’t petty vandalism. Academy players at Argentina’s Racing Club are encouraged to do it. Cecilia Contarino, a trained psychologist, who runs the lodgings — the pensión — for the club, has always believed it helps with visualisation.

When the next generation come along to take up their places, they can draw inspiration from those who stayed at the Mattiussi in the past. When they look up, they see more than a name. They see careers flash before their eyes. Debuts at Racing’s stadium, El Cilindro, next door. Moves to Europe. League titles. A World Cup.

Lautaro’s signature has been the last thing one lucky youth-team player has seen before falling asleep this season. Lautaro’s goals for Argentina, at this summer’s Copa America, have come at the last, too.

‘Lauti’, as he’s affectionately known, came on and scored an 88th-minute clincher in the world champions’ opening game against Canada. He made another late cameo against Chile and got the winner at exactly the same time. Then, upon forcing his way into the starting XI for the final group game against Peru, Lautaro scored twice. The second, four minutes from the end, was another ruthlessly punished one-v-one and definitively put the game to bed.

GettyImages 2159877346 scaled

Lautaro deftly finishes to score his second goal in Argentina’s 2-0 win over Peru (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni has found himself in the same position as 18 months ago at the World Cup in Qatar. Only the roles have been reversed.

Lautaro started that tournament up front with Lionel Messi, but lost his place to Julian Alvarez after the second group game. The Manchester City striker seized his opportunity. Alvarez de-stressed Argentina at a time when the pressure was high, turning nervy 1-0s into joyous releases. His top-corner screamer in the final group game against Poland made sure of qualification and his place in the side next to Messi, the noise reverberating off the shipping containers used to construct Doha’s Stadium 974.

Substituted a few days later after putting Argentina 2-0 up against Australia in the round of 16, Alvarez watched from the bench as their opponents pulled one back. He crept out of the dugout as Messi played his replacement, Lautaro, through on goal with a chance to kill the tie once and for all. Lautaro tried to bend a shot inside the far post but it ended up in the stands rather than the back of the net.

Trudging through the mixed zone at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium later that night, Lautaro carried his washbag as if it bore the weight of the world, not shampoo and conditioner. He cursed his luck.

In the opening group game against Saudi Arabia, he thought he’d scored not once but twice. Argentina were 1-0 up after an early Messi penalty. By the 35th minute, the VAR team had disallowed three goals. Two of them belonged to Lautaro. As if that wasn’t vexing enough, Saudi Arabia came back from behind to upset the favourites.

The psychodrama was intense. Messi described Argentina as “dead” afterwards and resurrection only came about after Enzo Fernandez and Alvarez’s phased introductions to the team. Alvarez’s two goals in the semi-final against Croatia put Messi within touching distance of fulfilment and the final would go down as the greatest in World Cup history.

He eclipsed Lautaro. The final eclipsed their quarter-final which, up until then, had been the game of the tournament.

The Netherlands had come back from 2-0 down to take the game to extra time and then penalties. The last spot kick fell to Lautaro. If he had missed, Messi would never have emulated Diego Maradona in winning a World Cup and Argentina would be flying to the U.S. in 2026 having gone 40 years without lifting it.

“I wasn’t down to take it but I told Scaloni I wanted to and they let me take the fifth one,” Lautaro recalled. It was his contribution to Argentina’s title. Lautaro converted from 12 yards and they stayed alive. It was the only goal he scored in Qatar but sometimes it’s better to weigh goals than count them, and that penalty weighed a ton.

GettyImages 1446527307 scaled

Lautaro, right, was not a regular starter at the 2022 World Cup (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Lautaro later contextualised his struggles. He revealed he had started the tournament playing through pain. “A month beforehand, my ankle was in pieces… I was on the verge of having surgery, because I was suffering,” he said. “I was taking a lot of painkillers to play. I received injections in those first two games (in Qatar). I had to stay off the ankle, rest and ice it heavily.”

Unlike Angel Di Maria and Leandro Paredes at Juventus, who were suspected of holding themselves back to avoid an injury that might rule them out for that mid-season World Cup, Lautaro played hard for Serie A rivals Inter Milan. It’s the only way he knows. “No one can tell me I didn’t give my all,” said the striker. “I always give everything for Inter, for the staff, the gaffer, my team-mates and the fans.”

He felt no hard feelings towards Alvarez. “I invited him to my wedding but, unfortunately, he couldn’t come,” Lautaro explained. Six months after their World Cup triumph, their respective clubs, Inter and Manchester City, met in the Champions League final. “They’re the two biggest games you can play,” Lautaro said.

At 26, he has achieved practically everything.

Lautaro helped win the Copa America in 2021, scoring Argentina’s last penalty in the shootout that decided the semi-final against Colombia. He has won the World Cup. He has played in Europa League and Champions League finals. He has scored away at Camp Nou, Anfield, Valdebebas (when Real Madrid used a stadium on the grounds of their training base instead of the Bernabeu during the pandemic) and Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park. He has won a record six Milan derbies in a row.

In the last 65 years, only five players have scored 20 or more goals in three consecutive seasons in Serie A. Lautaro is one of them. He has done it with a different strike partner every year, showing he can play with anybody.

He is the most consistent goalscorer in Serie A. In his first year as captain of Inter, he finished Capocannoniere, as Italy’s top scorer is known, and won his second league title. The first was also Inter’s first in 11 years. The second was the Scudetto della Seconda Stella. For every 10 an Italian team wins, they get to stitch a star above the club crest on their shirts. Last season was Inter’s 20th.

GettyImages 2153715106 scaled

Lautaro won the second of his Serie A titles with Inter last season (Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)

He has come a long way from Bahia Blanca — Argentina’s Windy City. The gusts blowing in from the coast there are so strong that a lot of sport ends up taking place indoors. The weather is the reason it’s more of a basketball town.

Three of Argentina’s 2004 Olympic gold medal-winning team hail from Bahia Blanca: Pepe Sanchez, Alejandro Montecchia and, of course, the great Manu Ginobili. They were the city’s most famous names before Lautaro. They persuaded him to take up basketball and, in part, explain why, at a relatively diminutive 5ft 8in (173cm), he has such great hang-time for scoring headers. Lautaro’s younger brother, Jano, shoots hoops professionally in the Torneo Federal A back home.

Lautaro instead went into football on account of his father, Mario, who played left-back for Bahia Blanca club Villa Mitre. Nicknamed El Pelusa (The Fuzz) for his bushy eyebrows and thick head of hair, his boy became known locally as ‘El Pelusita’. Lautaro started out in defence too, until a coach at his first club, Liniers, thought that was a waste of time. Lautaro became a marauding centre-forward, his spiky hairstyle conjuring the image of a character from a 1990s video game.

When the 16-year-old Lautaro joined Racing, his team-mate Santiago Reyes nicknamed him ‘El Toro’ — ‘The Bull’ — capturing perfectly the way he charged down defenders and knocked into everyone and everything. “In some respects, I’ve never stopped thinking like a defender,” Lautaro said. “Chasing down every ball comes naturally to me. That’s always been my style.”

He rushed into the starting XI at Racing as a teenager, replacing Racing and Inter legend Diego Milito. When Milito became an executive at the club, he handled Martinez’s sale. He notified an old team-mate, Inter vice-president Javier Zanetti, when talks to sell him to Atletico Madrid stalled in 2018. Racing believed he was worth more than his low buyout clause and Inter were willing to pay what they wanted. The €25million ($26.8m) they spent was one of the best investments in the club’s history.

Lautaro feels at home away from home in Milan. His wife Augusta has opened a breakfast restaurant there and they have never wished to leave. He is expected to sign a new contract when he returns from the Copa in the United States. “We’ll get it done in a few days,” Inter president Beppe Marotta said. “He’s on the other side of the world at the moment, but we’re proud our captain has this strong sense of belonging.”

No one has had any quibbles. Lautaro stepped up when Mauro Icardi was stripped of the armband in 2019 after his wife and agent Wanda Nara’s public criticism of Inter’s performances. He stayed true to the club amid a financial crisis when others, such as his old strike partner Romelu Lukaku, thought the grass looked greener elsewhere.

GettyImages 2159880091 scaled

(Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Occasionally accused of being streaky even during 20-goal seasons, Lautaro, over time, tends to have the last laugh.

When the pundit and former AC Milan defender Billy Costacurta claimed he didn’t do it in the big games, Lautaro hit back: “It isn’t true. I scored in the Champions League semi-final against Milan. That was one of the biggest games in the history of the club. I invite him to go back and watch it.”

For Argentina, he recently went 16 games without a goal, which is one of the reasons why Alvarez started ahead of him at this tournament. But how the tables have turned.

How does he explain it? “Hard work,” Martinez said. “But this is all about moments. There are times when the ball doesn’t want to go in.” Now it does, and it’s Alvarez’s turn to sit on the bench.

When Lautaro was on that lower bunk at the Casa Tita Mattiussi, this was the form he dreamed about showing for his country.



Argentina’s soccer superstitions: From caramel candies to a Chucky doll in the dressing room

(Top photo: Chris Arjoon/AFP via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top