|Feb 17, 2017 12:14:24 PM||Transfer Zone|
Argentina Under-20s' mediocre recent campaign in the South American Championships, an agonising last-minute qualification for the World Cup aside, left little to get excited about for local fans. But one bright point was undoubtedly the emergence of Lautaro Martinez, the Racing Club teenager who has learned from two natural goalscorers and has gained the attention of European giants like Arsenal and Real Madrid.
To have a strong role model to follow is often vital to a young star coming up the ranks. Juan Roman Riquelme shared his first steps at Boca Juniors with the great Diego Maradona, and succeeded him in the No. 10 jersey at the Bombonera.
Later, Riquelme carried out the same role in introducing a raw Carlos Tevez to the Buenos Aires club. Even Lionel Messi benefited by coming under the wing of Ronaldinho, although the Brazilian's hectic party lifestyle eventually convinced Pep Guardiola that he was not the greatest role model to have around Barcelona.
By that logic, we can expect wonderful things from Lautaro Martinez. The 19-year-old striker not only continues his apprenticeship playing alongside former Porto and Lyon star Lisandro Lopez, back at his first club, but also had the privilege of watching the silent assassin Diego Milito in his final playing moments - his debut coming off the bench in 2015 to replace none other than El Principe in his final season.
"I dream of playing in a Cilindro [Racing's home ground] full of people and being like Milito," Martinez said to the club's official website after that game.
"I would love to play in Europe and I also dream of playing for the national team."
Sharing a dressing room with those stars is of course a double-edged sword. With the centre-forward role held uncontested by Milito and later Licha, Martinez has played just 17 games for his club, many off the bench; and when he does make it onto the pitch, he has often been forced to occupy a wide role that is far from his favourite position.
Martinez is a natural No. 9, a mobile centre-forward in the guise of Gonzalo Higuain or Luis Suarez. His record through the Racing academy and Argentina youth set-up demonstrates that when played centrally, he is capable of hitting the net on a regular basis - his five strikes at the South American Championships crowned him joint-top scorer of the entire competition, with four of those coming in Argentina's last three games to ensure World Cup qualification.
Those talents have not gone unnoticed. Real Madrid were the first big European club to register an interest for the teenager, while he starred in the L'Alcudia tournament with the Under-20s in 2016. "We had an informal chat with Real Madrid, the plan would be to send him on loan with a very high purchase option," Racing president Victor Blanco said at the time, although uncertainty at Madrid regarding the FIFA transfer ban undoubtedly stopped those initial contacts from developing into a concrete bid.
Martinez's agent is Rolando Zarate, the former Velez Sarsfield striker who also had a fleeting spell at Madrid as a youngster, meaning the doors to the Bernabeu will most likely remain open should the Merengue wish to redouble their efforts in the coming transfer window.
Arsenal are another confirmed suitor for Lautaro, who will be hoping to play a bigger part in Racing's plans this term as they juggle Primera Division commitments with the Copa Sudamericana. "Arsenal have asked for reports on Lautaro, but there is nothing concrete yet," Zarata told AM 970, while assuring that Valencia were also in the chase. Los Che hold an extra advantage in the form of a first option on Martinez, taken out as part of the sale of Rodrigo de Paul to the Mestalla side. Racing are obliged to inform Valencia of any bid made from Europe, giving them the chance to equal or better the offer.
Blanco, however, is keen to hold on to his young wonderkid, and will insist on every penny of Martinez's release clause - €9 million - in order to sanction a sale. It is a hefty transfer fee, but a worthy gamble for a player that has never failed to hit the net in any of the teams he has represented so far in his short career.
Racing's Tita Mattuissi academy, built and run by fans since the late 1990s, has produced many gems over the years. The likes of Milito, Lopez, Luciano Vietto, Claudio Yacob, Sergio Romero and Maxi Moralez have all gone on to play in Europe's top leagues. And when this writer visited in 2015, he was told by Tita coordinator Leo Tarrio that "the next big prospect here is Lautaro Martinez." The youngster netted a reserve hat-trick that day against Lanus, and has only grown since those prophetic words were uttered.
Quick, strong, a lethal finisher and adept at playing off the shoulder of the last defender, Martinez has a sparkling future ahead of him. If he continues his impressive run for Racing in the next four months, the likes of Arsenal and Real will almost certainly be joined by a deluge of other clubs keen to grab the signature of Argentina's last-gasp Under-20 hero.