How can the return of a man who spent such a short time in Atlanta, managing a soccer team that is so new, feel so nostalgic? Gerardo “Tata” Martino once again roamed the Mercedes-Benz Stadium sideline Wednesday night, leading the Mexico men’s national team to a 3-1 friendly win over Venezuela.
Anyone with a cable box or a Netflix account knows nostalgia is in right now. Film and television writers bring old characters back to center stage and capitalize on familiarity. Nick Carraway said you can’t repeat the past. Hollywood says of course you can.
Soccer United Marketing must like the idea. The arm of Major League Soccer that promotes MLS, the United States national team, and the Mexico national team set up Mexico-Venezuela at the Benz as El Tri prepares for the Concacaf Gold Cup and La Vinotinto readies for the Copa America. The game brought El Tata back to the city and stadium he called home for two years, a little less than six months after he managed Atlanta United to the MLS Cup title in the club’s sophomore season.
“There’s a lot of great memories,” Martino said, through an interpreter, at his pregame press conference Tuesday, “and it’s hard to detach myself and not have that connection with the people of the club and the city of Atlanta, having spent here two beautiful years.”
Despite his managerial resume—Barcelona, Argentina—Martino arrived in 2016 as an unknown to the majority of local residents. He built a roster to his acute specifications and brought this city its first big championship since the Braves won it all back in 1995. Hardly anyone thought MLS could succeed here, and Atlanta United proved almost everyone wrong. Fans showed up for that first loss to the New York Red Bulls at Bobby Dodd Stadium, and they did not stop coming. Martino’s electric brand of soccer, something never before seen in MLS, was the reason why.
Wednesday night’s game not only was a return, but a reunion. Josef Martínez, the 2018 MLS Most Valuable Player and star of Martino’s Atlanta teams, played the second half for Venezuela. Following recent Atlanta games, local reporters have asked Martínez about the matchup against his old manager and what it means to him. In the locker room after Atlanta’s 3-0 victory against Minnesota United on May 29, Martínez had to fight back tears.
“Tata gave me a lot,” he said through an interpreter, his voice breaking. “That’s why I get emotional, because aside from our coach, he was like a father.”
The night was layered with emotion for Martínez. He has said nothing is more important as a professional than playing for his national team. Martínez again spoke about this game in the aftermath of Atlanta’s 2-0 win over the Chicago Fire on June 1, and he acknowledged donning the Venezuela shirt at Mercedes-Benz Stadium would be a significant moment in his career.
“It’s going to be special because this is my home,” Martínez said. “So it’s going to be a little strange to put on a different jersey in this stadium, but to wear the national team jersey here, it means a lot.”
“And we have to enjoy this game, so I’m going to try to enjoy it. I hope the fans do as well. Memories last a lot longer than your career, so when you’re done playing and at the end of your career, these are the moments you look back on.”
Even the action on the field Wednesday was vintage. Mexico attacked in waves from the start, and it looked like a goal could come at any moment. But the progressive tactics left Martino’s team exposed, and Venezuela had its opportunities. In a throwback to so many Atlanta United games from 2017 and ’18, Venezuela scored first before Mexico buried the opposition with three goals of its own.
Last year, Martino became known in Atlanta for his fashion sense. He regularly wore a sweater tied around his neck and draped over his back on the sideline. The sweater was so iconic, it inspired a farewell tifo for the Five Stripes’ playoff game against New York City FC. “No todos los héroes usan capa, pero el nuestro sí,” the message read. “Not all heroes wear capes, but ours does.” Martínez’s great reverence for his manager meant that gesture was not enough.
“I think he gave this city a lot,” Martínez said after the Minnesota game. “Things that many important people haven’t done, and for that he deserves it and much more. Beyond the game, I hope people come and say goodbye to him like he deserves and welcome him like he deserves. I don’t think he had the best goodbye, even though he won a championship.”
A few minutes before kickoff Wednesday, Martino and Martínez shared a long embrace, exchanging words, smiles, and back slaps. Atlanta United Twitter melted into a puddle of feelings. After the game, Martino would not reveal what was said between the two.
¡REENCUENTRO! Justo en el estadio del Atlanta United, Gerardo Martino y Josef Martínez se volvieron a cruzar y se estrecharon en un abrazo. Una dupla que la rompió en la MLS. pic.twitter.com/PITEKKX0OQ
— SportsCenter (@SC_ESPN) June 6, 2019
Discussing this Venezuela team and its prospects at the Copa America Tuesday, Martino spoke with a straight face about manager Rafael Dudamel’s experience and the quality of players such as Tomás Rincón, Salomón Rondón, and Adalberto Peñaranda, all of whom play for top-division clubs in Europe. He noted Venezuela’s recent success against Argentina, an international power. Then, Martino paused and smiled.
“As for Josef, I don’t have much to say. I just love him.”