Pity Martínez: From almost a frustrating flop to a River Plate legend

It’s not always been plane sailing at the Monumental for Pity Martínez as Tom Nash charts the rise from frustrating youngster to fan favourite. With the chants of ‘El Pity Martínez, que loco que está’ still ringing in the ears, River’s loss is certainly Atlanta United’s gain…

Anyone who only started watching River Plate in the last year or two would probably struggle to comprehend that Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martínez once had a very strained relationship with the River fans due to his poor performances, but that is the truth. 

Pity vacates the sacred no.10 jersey and moves to Atlanta in a blaze of glory having won two Copa Libertadores titles with River. One of his final kicks of a ball wearing red, white, and black was to seal the team’s Libertadores triumph against Boca in the Santiago Bernabéu. Back in his early years, it did not seem likely to end happily ever after for both parties.

Manager Marcelo Gallardo brought Pity to River from Huracán as a talented young winger four years ago, for a fee of approximately US $4 million.

His price tag and obvious technical ability created a certain level of expectation at his new club – expectation that he was unable to meet in his first two years. The red and white shirt ‘weighed heavily on him’ as Argentine footballing slang would put it, and River’s fanbase is notoriously unforgiving when a player does not meet with their approval.

It’s also worth emphasizing the significance of the no.10 jersey to Argentina’s biggest clubs. Whoever has the honour to wear it has to be a worthy successor to previous legends who used the shirt – Ariel Ortega, or Beto Alonso, amongst others in this case. They don’t necessarily have to work hard for the team, but they do have to add a touch of magic to keep the fans entertained and the team scoring.

The side was able to win the 2015 Copa Libertadores despite Pity’s unspectacular performances, so the fans were not on his back at that point. He played a lesser role in that squad but teammates such as Carlos Sánchez and Lucas Alario were superb, so it went a bit more unnoticed when he underperformed.

Things turned sour the following year however. River lost many of the stars who secured the main prize in 2015, and the team began to perform poorly by the club’s high standards. They were way off the pace in the league, and just managed to scrape a Copa Argentina win against Rosario Central in the December 2016 final to bag a place in the 2017 Copa Libertadores.

Once things were going badly, Pity’s sub-par performances were no longer tolerated so much by fans of El Millonario.

After being questioned so frequently and so vocally, Pity had his own response, urging supporters to be hushed with a ‘silence’ gesture after scoring a fantastic strike against Quilmes in El Monumental.

Challenging the River faithful without excelling consistently just enraged them even more. After a fairly disappointing 2016 in both a team and personal sense, the tension between him and the fans sunk to new levels after his car was apparently attacked deliberately.

Following this low in February 2017, things quickly began to look up. The next month came what many consider to be the turning point in his River career – a 3-1 win away to Lanús in which the no.10 was at his inspired best.

That night turned out to be the springboard for his time with El Millonario. The team picked up form and in May 2017, he scored the first of a series of iconic goals against eternal rival Boca Juniors. A left-foot volley in La Bombonera combined with a neat assist set River up for a 3-1 derby win.

His form dropped along with the team’s later in 2017, but 2018 will go down as his most memorable year with the club by far.

In March, River were still suffering a hangover from their shock elimination to Lanús in the 2017 Copa Libertadores. That hangover lasted until March 14, when the club came up against their old foe Boca Juniors again, this time in the Argentine Super Cup in Mendoza. Pity was sublime once more, with another goal & assist combination to give River a celebrated 2-0 win.

Martínez continued his good form throughout the year, and was now considered Gallardo’s most creative asset in attack. His team often suffered without his inspirational dribbles and step overs, as Pity is a master of the famous Argentine gambeta – the trickery and pace required to take on a defender and beat him.

The European summer transfer window of 2018 passed without any bids for Martínez, and El Millonario built up some solid form in both league and cup. By the time the next Superclásico came around in September, they were over 25 games unbeaten – a run stretching back to February.

That spring afternoon, Pity cemented his place as both a River Plate and Superclásico legend, as he again opened the scoring in La Bombonera with a left-foot volley almost identical to the one he had scored in May the previous year. His performance was cut short by a hamstring injury, but he did enough damage in 20 minutes to confirm his legacy alongside other Superclásico giants such as Gallardo himself.

Boca Juniors come up time after time in Martinez’s story at River. He will not go down as the greatest player in Millonario history, but he may well be remembered as the one who gave fans the most joy against the old enemy. 

By now, Pity had tormented Los Xeneizes so often that River fans even invented a catchy song to taunt their rivals about what their no.10 does to them in derby games, the lyrics of which are far too crude to publish on this page!

That chant marked a transformation. Things had gone 180° for Martinez since joining the club. At the close of 2016, fans didn’t believe he was fit to wear the no.10 shirt, but in late 2018 they were singing his name from the terraces. 

Shortly afterwards, it emerged that Pity had finally gotten his long-awaited transfer to a much richer league. He had been hoping for this for a year, and even refused to sign a bigger contract with a higher release clause as he believed it would impede his chances of making it to a European team. 

The only surprise was that it was not a European club that came in for him, but an American one. The ambitious Atlanta United triggered his €15m release clause and decided to take him to MLS in January 2019.

That was the start of the long goodbye, but there was some unfinished business to attend to first.

In October, River were down to the last four of the Copa Libertadores, where they faced reigning champions Grêmio. After a frustrating 1-0 loss in the home leg, Gallardo’s team managed to turn the tie around and go through 2-2 on away goals after a dramatic last minute penalty in Brazil. The man assigned to step up and score that vital spot-kick in injury time was none other than Gonzalo Martínez. The sight of him securing River’s place in the 2018 final in the pouring rain in Porto Alegre will live with supporters forever.

That incredible victory set up a final versus a familiar opponent – Boca Juniors. The final of the Libertadores was to be a Superclásico for the first time ever! This was truly historic, and without doubt the biggest game in both clubs’ histories. 

By the final few months of his time in Núñez, Martínez had been a star of so many of these famous clashes that neither Boca nor River fans were surprised to see him play a crucial role yet again. He set up River’s two goals in the first leg, and scored after a legendary solo run up the Bernabéu field to tap the ball into an empty net and seal a historic 3-1 win for his side. It was the most simple yet the most beautiful goal he has ever scored, and that moment will forever be the most iconic in the history of club football in Argentina.

That was his emphatic last contribution to his team, barring a couple of goals in River’s failed Club World Cup campaign in UAE. After four years, 35 goals, and eight cup wins, the time had come to move on and sign a more lucrative contract outside his homeland for the first time.

No River fan resents him making the move. They know the economic reality of the sport in Argentina means star players regularly move elsewhere to earn exponentially more. Who can blame them? All they really have to say about the memories Martínez has given them is a simple gracias Pity! 

No two words sum up his new relationship with the River fans more aptly than that.

Tom Nash is an avid River follower living in Buenos Aires who runs the @Carp_English twitter account

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