On Sunday, July 21, 2019, Atlanta United played D.C. United in a battle between two of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference. With the game tied, 0-0, going into the dying minutes, Josef Martinez, the reigning MVP, managed to win a penalty for Atlanta in the 71st minute. Martinez was the designated penalty taker, and going into the game, had scored 14 of 15 penalty shots in his MLS career. He was facing Bill Hamid, a goalkeeper, who only had a total of five saved penalties in his career. The result seemed a foregone conclusion.
Martinez set the ball down, took a few steps back and waited for the whistle. When the referee signaled for him to shoot, he did his signature run-up — it starts with a side shuffle, which leads to him doing quick toe taps while crouching, before running to the ball and doing an exaggerated hop that ends with him shooting as he lands — and then surprisingly, he missed. But he didn’t just miss, he ballooned the ball over the crossbar.
The miss was such a bizarre moment for one of the best penalty-takers in the league that some began to suspect that there was something more to it than just Martinez misfiring. The suspicions turned out to be right. This is the (un)true story behind Martinez’s penalty miss.
Chapter I: Loomings
Before Martinez was a star in MLS, he was just another kid in Valencia, Venezuela. He would play football in the streets with his friends, dreaming of playing at the highest levels and representing his country in the future. One night, his life suddenly changed.
Josef Martínez (Forward, Atlanta United): I remember it clearly. It was a cool, still night. The world seemed muted, somehow, stifled. I have my father to thank. He’d taken us well south — we lived in Valencia at the time — for a break from the city. Every evening until then had been a riot of noise. When the frogs fell silent the bats started back up, and I was still young enough to hear them then. That gift, alas, has fallen from me of late. Sometimes I still think I can, but ...
Anyway. That night. Yes. My father had heard that there was to be a meteor shower and had brought us all down to watch it. It was a gesture reflective of the sort of man my father is. He is kind, generous, wanting nothing but the best for his children. Unfortunately he was not an astronomer, and didn’t know to check the phases of the moon. I don’t know if we would have seen any meteors if the moon wasn’t full that week. But it was full and bright and — have you ever looked at the moon? I don’t mean if you’ve ever seen her, of course you have. But have you ever really looked?
Alexander Martínez (Josef’s father): Our cat had died. Run over. Josef’s mother told me to get him out of the house for a while and distract him. We drove south a ways. I made up some sh*t about meteors to keep him up at night watching for them. That way he’d be so tired he’d fall asleep. We were worried. But then he never shut up. Never. You know what eight-year-olds are like.
And then, for like two hours one night, he shut up. He was awake, but he wasn’t saying anything. Just staring. It was great.
Josef Martínez: That night I saw the moon. Not just her face, with which every child is familiar. I saw her soul, in silver radiant, drank down her scars and seams. That which men call ‘Tycho’ stared back. I was transfixed. A wondrous tide washed over me. You might call it a baptism. From that night forward, I had two loves: the first for my favorite club, the MLS’s Atlanta United. And stronger still, my affinity for the moon.
My father, good man that he is, was supportive of my interests. When I’d exhausted his knowledge of the moon, he gave me what he could so that I could learn more of her. Books upon books piled up in my room. I read between training sessions.
Do you know that Earth is the only planet of the major eight in our solar system that has one moon? One moon for Earth. One moon for me.
Alexander Martínez: The moon? He may have mentioned it once or twice. But he talked a lot, that kid. For some time, he changed his name to “Hippolytus” and started making offerings to his “forever virginal Artemis”. I didn’t pay anything he said much attention as long as he seemed like he was doing OK. Well, except for the times he pretended to be a bear.
Chapter II: Going Aboard
After playing for Carcaras, Young Boys, and Thun (on loan), Martinez impressed enough that Serie A side, Torino, purchased him in the summer of 2014 for €3 million. Unfortunately, he only managed seven goals in his three years there, and in the winter of 2017, Torino loaned him to Atlanta United, the newest expansion team of MLS, with an option to purchase him outright at the end of the season.
Darren Eales (Atlanta United president): Josef had already proven himself on some of the biggest stages in our sport and we were confident in his ability to make a difference in MLS. That’s why Arthur [Blank, team owner] brought him here. Our confidence in him was totally repaid. Looking back, I couldn’t be prouder of that decision.
Tata Martino (Atlanta United coach): Look, I had just dealt with Lionel Messi at Barcelona and at Argentina. I just wanted to be around someone who would be nice to me. Martinez looked nice. He didn’t look like the type of person who would glare at me so hard that my ancestors apologized for making my birth possible.
Then I saw him take a penalty in training. He looked like he was a horse throwing his rider. I thought he was possessed by the ghost of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
Brad Guzan (Atlanta United goalkeeper): We were in training one day. Josef took a penalty. I went the wrong way and he scored, but the coach was furious anyway. He screamed at him to knock it off with the “horsey sh*t.” I thought that was funny. The goalkeepers laughed about it for a while. I called Josef “Horsey” for a while, but I guess it just didn’t stick. Maybe I thought it was funnier than everyone else did.
Tata Martino: I said “Knock it off with the horsey sh*t, motherf***er.” Everyone heard me.
Josef Martínez: In joining my boyhood club I had achieved one of my life’s great ambitions. Having worked hard to become a professional and attract the eye of Tata and United, I was very proud. But I knew that I could not waste the privilege — for what is my career but the product of mere serendipity? Even talent, thought God-given, is a form of mere luck — and that I’d need to keep working. And besides, Atlanta and America gave me a platform to cast myself heavenward. No country but the United States has ever touched the moon.
Tata Martino: What? The moon? He never mentioned anything like that to me, no.
Darren Eales: I think I remember overhearing him tell Miguel Almirón that he thought that Buzz Aldrin was a great American, which I thought was a little strange coming from a kid from Venezuela. But it’s not really that strange, is it? Buzz Aldrin is a great American. I used to say his catchphrase all the time when I was young: “To infinity, and beyond!”
Josef Martínez: The men of Apollo 11 were the bravest of the brave, the last great explorers mankind has produced. They brought life to an entire world! When I saw the moon as a child, she was alive and she was in a deep slumber. It was the Apollo missions which stirred her. I knew I’d soon be on the national stage. (Was that arrogant to think? Perhaps, but is humility in the face of one’s undeniable skill not a lie, and a monstrous one at that?) I began to devise some sort of tribute.
Tata Martino: I banned him from taking penalties like that. Josef was still the designated taker, but I told him that if he tried that sh*t in a real game, I would send him to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, like they did Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. And Miguel Almirón would take over as the penalty-taker.
Josef Martínez: I knew that if I scored enough goals in the MLS Coach Martino would get off my back. So I did.
Brad Guzan: Sometimes I still call him “Horsey,” but he never seems to hear me.
Chapter III: His Mark
On July 20, 2019, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. The Atlanta versus D.C. United game was the day after, and though Martinez was disappointed not to play on the exact day of the 50th anniversary, he was intent on commemorating the Apollo mission in his own way.
Josef Martínez: When the schedule came out I was devastated. I had been hoping all along to be on television on July 20th, 2019. It felt as though I had been kicked in the teeth by a horse.
Ben Olsen (D.C. United coach): We knew it was going to be a tough game, especially without Wayne [Rooney]. I didn’t want to let him go, but my medical team said that the little injuries were piling up to the point where I’d either have to rest him or but him at serious risk. I couldn’t afford to do that.
Wayne Rooney (D.C. United forward): Wayne! Wayne wayne wayne way-way-way wayne. Waaaaayne! Wayne wayne.
Russell Canouse (D.C. United midfielder): We were there to defend and counter. Without Wayne we knew we had to play it close and tight and not make mistakes. Which is why I felt like such an asshole when I fouled him.
Frank de Boer (Atlanta United manager): Josef’s penalty technique is terrible. It’d be all right once, when you can expect to confuse the goalkeeper, but they know it’s coming all they have to do is ... basically what [Bill] Hamid did. Stay tall and wait him out.
Bill Hamid (D.C. United goalkeeper): I just stood tall and waited him out. Once he does that big hop he basically can’t re-adjust, so as long as you can react to whatever happens you’re in good shape. It spooked him so badly he mis-hit it over the bar.
Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United midfielder): People think we used to suck because Frank was a bad coach, but it was actually because the first time he saw that penalty run-up, he was so mad that he popped a f*cking blood vessel. It was insane. They had to get his brother Ronald to coach us while he was in the hospital.
Frank de Boer: Do I have a problem with his penalty style? Yeah. But my doctor said speaking about it isn’t good for my rage.
Josef Martínez: I had worked so hard to get to where I was. At that time. At that place. Fifty years prior, men were on the surface of the moon at Tranquility Base. When I stepped up to the spot I imagined Neil Armstrong staring down at me. I’m sure he’s up there in spirit, and I’m sure he saw what I did.
Missing a penalty on purpose is the sort of thing you’ll get sanctioned for. But having a ridiculous run-up which everyone thinks will someday result into you hitting a penalty to the moon? Nobody asked questions.
Wayne Rooney: Wayne wayne. (Sadly) Wayne.
Josef Martínez: Obviously, you cannot kick a soccer ball to the moon. It’s impossible. Impossible. But as a metaphor, it works. It’s aspirational, evocative. A tribute to both of the two great loves of my life. I knew that the ‘miss’ wouldn’t matter to the result.
Frank de Boer: Had he not scored after that miss to win us the game ... I don’t even want to think of the things I would have done to him.
Russell Canouse: I felt so relieved when he missed that. We’d worked real hard for that away point and at the time it looked as though we’d really get it. We deserved more than those late goals. That sucked, man.
Frank de Boer: Why do you keep asking me about the moon? Get out of my office.
Darlington Nagbe: He never said sh*t about the moon to me until after that game and since that’s all he ever talks about. He’s being so weird about that miss. It’s like when you f*ck up a pass and pretend to be injured, except he’s doing it with his whole brain or something. It’s the moon. Who gives a sh*t?
Josef Martínez: Darlington said that? Unfortunate. Does he not even care that the moon was once a ball of magma? That some the dark patches on its near-side are sites of its former lava seas? Mare Vaporum, Mare Marginis, Mare Crisium, Mare Australe. What about the fact that the moon’s gravitational pull is the cause of the rise and fall of Earth’s ocean tides? What about its pull on my heart? Why doesn’t he care about my heart?
Brad Guzan: It was all right in the end. We got the win. Horsey got his goal. No harm done.
Josef Martínez: In the end, I think Neil liked it.