Two years ago, Lautaro Martínez was nobody. Next fall, he’ll don the iconic black-and-blue stripes of Internazionale Milano, the legendary Italian club that counts 18 league titles, seven Italian cups and three European Cups/Champions Leagues in its trophy cabinet.
Italian journalist Fabrizio Romano broke the news on Wednesday morning that Martínez, Racing and Inter Milan had reached an preliminary agreement that will see the Argentine forward join the Italian giants in the summer. The transfer fee will be roughly 20.2 million euros, and Martí- nez will sign a five-year contract with a new release clause as high as 110 million euros. “We’re on our way to a completed deal. I’m 99 percent sure he’ll be playing for Inter,” Rolando Zárate, Martínez’s agent, told Radio La Red on Thursday.
The catalyst for the deal was Racing’s 4-0 demolition of Huracán last Sunday, in which Martínez scored three and earned a penalty for the fourth. “The last few days he’s been the talk of the town because he scored his first hat trick on Sunday. But it’s not anything new,” says Andrés Eliceche, sports editor at La Nación. “Interested clubs already knew how good he was, this just reinforced it emphatically.”
The 20-year-old grew up playing basketball and football in Bahía Blanca. He began at Liniers, and at 15 had a trial with Boca Juniors. But the club quickly rejected him, and a year later he joined Racing.
El Toro, a nickname earned because of his agile, physical style of attack, didn’t make waves until 2016, when he was the top scorer for Argentina’s Under-20 national team in Spain’s L’Alcúdia tournament, then repeated the feat at the Under-20 South American Championship last January. “It’s a really good young national team, but he was the best and most important player there,” Eliceche says.
Building off his success with the Albiceleste, Martínez hauled in nine goals and an assist in 27 appearances (and 16 starts) in the 2016-17 season. The Under-20 World Cup last summer went poorly, but the 20-year-old bounced back. In November, he had a goal and an assist in Racing’s 2-1 win over probable Superliga champions Boca Juniors, the team that had rejected him years before. He currently has seven goals and two assists in 14 games for Racing this season.
On January 11, after heavy transfer speculation (including a reported completed medical with Atlético Madrid and a rejected bid from Boca Juniors), Martínez signed a new contract with Racing that raised his release clause to US$20 million.
After last Sunday, arguably the game of his career so far, things happened n fast. In the crowd that night were representatives from Inter Milan, and the first bid from the club came on Tuesday. It surpassed his new release clause, but Racing still rejected the offer. One day later, the parties had come to an agreement.
A ROLE IN MILAN
How Martínez would fit into head coach Luciano Spalletti’s plans “is a very interesting question,” says Richard Hall, founder of the football blog The Gentleman Ultra and a regular contributor on Italian football for British sports media. It all depends on whether Martínez is designed to replace Mauro Icardi, who has bagged 18 of Inter’s 38 league goals this season. “Inter are too reliant on the goals of Icardi. The collective responsibility of the rest of the team to provide goals is not being achieved,” Hall says. “With links to Real Madrid rife in Milan, Martínez may be the man they look to to replace the superlative goal record of their Capitano.”
But if Icardi stays, Hall says, the tactics get complicated. No one starts over Icardi. Nor is it likely Spalletti would pair the two upfront. In Inter’s 4-3-3 formation, Martínez could play on the wing, but it’s not a position that would bring the best out of El Toro. Rafinha, a recent signing, is first choice for the attacking midfield slot, so that’s unavailable as well. With Icardi up front, Martínez may be relegated to a substitute role. “If he does end up on the bench at first, this will not help Inter,” Hall says. “They need someone who can help out with the goals, add to the attacking threat.”
It’s difficult to predict what will happen when a talented player moves to Europe, Eliceche says. Argentina exports the second-most number of players to leagues abroad, after Brazil, and there’s a long history of young Argentine stars making a career overseas. Often it’s more about the mental side of things than what they can do on the field, Eliceche adds – whether a young athlete can adapt to a new culture far away from family and friends.
Sam Kelly, a regular contributor on Argentine football for British sports media, can think of a cautionary tale or two, such as Racing teammate Ricardo Centurión, a similarly much-hyped young talent in 2013 when he moved to Genoa on loan in 2013. “
He didn’t have his head screwed on properly and wasn’t going to have the discipline to hit the heights he might have been capable of,” Kelly says. “But the Argentine press often don’t pay attention to that aspect of things.”
Genoa took a gamble, but larger clubs like Inter don’t do that, and wouldn’t have touched Centurión, Kelly says. “They’re fighting over Martínez because as well as clearly having a lot of talent, he also appears to have the discipline to apply it, and to train, and to actually want to succeed,” he says. “The hype is justified in that he keeps scoring, he’s improving over time, and he doesn’t have any immediately apparent disciplinary issues. No reason to think he won’t be one of the best in the world in six or seven years’ time.”
LA SELECCIÓN CALL-UP?
Nerazzurri officials weren’t the only ones watching from the stands on Sunday. Argentina national team head coach Jorge Sampaoli was also there, and the next morning multiple Argentine media outlets reported Martínez would be called up for two pre-World Cup friendlies in March. But the final decision for Russia is more complex than just a question of form.
“Sampaoli likes how Martínez plays a lot. He’s met with him twice. He’s seen him play,” says Eliceche. “The problem now is that the squad needs to be balanced. It’d be great to include all these qualified attackers, but there isn’t a space for everyone.”
In 2014, then-national team coach Alejandro Sabella chose five forwards and eight midfielders, but Sampaoli could shake up the ratio. Sergio Agüero’s looks secure, and Gonzalo Higuaín looks to be back in the frame. Eliceche sees Martínez competing for a more secondary striker or removed attacking role with the likes of Manuel Lanzini, Giovani Lo Celso, Paulo Dybala or Cristian Pavón.