LONDON: Pity Martinez’s Saudi Arabian introduction came Hollywood-style in a dramatic video made in September for social media that announced one of the biggest transfers in the country’s history.
There was a briefcase full of cash, a contract being offered to an unnamed pair of hands, a shiny car arriving at a hotel, officials opening multiple doors, and the outline of an Al-Nassr shirt being pulled on with the Riyadh city lights shining behind. The shirt belonged to Martinez, signed for $18 million from Atlanta United, and the season promised to be a blockbuster.
If that beginning was exciting, by December, the audience was in danger of losing interest amid rumors of the 2018 South American Player of the Year making a swift exit back to Major League Soccer (MLS) or maybe Mexico.
At the time, that may have seemed best for all but in recent weeks the Argentine player and Al-Nassr are starting to suggest that there may be a twist to this tale.
It is still hard to know what to make of this big-money move that shocked fans of Atlanta. Al-Nassr supporters were excited and knew that if this player, who scored for River Plate against bitter rivals Boca Juniors in the final of the 2018 Copa Libertadores, could do something similar in the 2021 AFC Champions League then that hefty transfer fee would be forgotten.
However, Martinez was not bought for his goals, more the mouth-watering prospect of him supplying bullets for Moroccan marksman Abderrazak Hamdallah.
But by mid-December, both star and team were looking lost. Al-Nassr were not battling it out at the top with rivals Al-Hilal, instead, after losing six of their first eight games, were in the relegation zone.
Martinez had been bought to break open defenses with his top-level passing skills and creativity but there was little evidence of that. While the former River Plate star can play anywhere in an attacking midfield position or off the striker, he prefers the right if possible.
Under coach Rui Vitoria, who led the team to the 2019 title, that did not happen as much as he would have liked. There were other issues in the team, but Martinez just was not getting into games and not seeing the ball as much as he wanted. A single assist in his first five league games was evidence of that.
It was inevitable then that, given the investment made in the team and the expectations that always surround the nine-time Saudi champions that Vitoria’s days were numbered, and he left in late December. In came Alen Horvat to take over temporarily and the fortunes of Al-Nassr and Martinez have improved greatly under the Croatian.
“I played in many positions, at the request of the former coach Vitoria,” Martinez told Saudi television after scoring against Al-Ain on Jan. 8.
“But coach Horvat has respected me and put me in the right place on the right side, where I feel comfortable and love to play and I thank him for that.”
Results have improved dramatically, and Al-Nassr have won six of their last eight matches with Martinez providing two goals and three assists and becoming more influential overall.
The team is happy, winning, and growing in confidence. There is more energy and movement going forward and with other players making more runs, it gives Martinez, always an available outlet for a defense under pressure, more space, and more options.
The league title is almost certainly out of sight unless the current run continues all the way to the end of the season, but a top-three finish is certainly not out of the question.
The recent Saudi Super Cup win over Al-Hilal may have been closer than the 3-0 score line suggested but it was a major confidence boost and a professional performance at both ends of the pitch.
The 2021 AFC Champions League starts in April and, on current form, Al-Nassr are one of the favorites and an in-form Martinez can only shorten those odds.
Nevertheless, the jury is still out on the 27-year-old even if, with a possible FIFA-imposed transfer ban hanging over the club due to money reportedly owed to former players, it may be a while before Al-Nassr can replace him. Martinez was not consistently impressive in his short American spell, although he shone in patches, and it has been suggested that he is one of those players who performs best on home soil.
There have been continuing rumors floated that he could be heading closer to Argentina with a return to MLS, this time Cincinnati. Mexico has also been mentioned as a potential destination.
The player denies it all. “My family and I are very happy. Don’t believe all that you read on social media,” Martinez said last week on social media. “I wanted to tell you that I am very happy at Al-Nassr FC.”
Six weeks ago, fans may not have been too upset at losing Pity Martinez but now, things are starting to look a little different. He has yet to live up to the hype but there is still time and that early season blip may just add to the Hollywood-style twist that could be coming.