Gerardo Martino’s smile, laugh and mannerisms were familiar Tuesday.
But everything else seemed slightly … off.
Instead of the black sweatshirt that he tied around his neck – dubbing himself “Batman” at one point – for two years as manager of Atlanta United, Martino wore a brown sweatshirt tied around his neck, covering a brown shirt emblazoned with the logo of the Mexican Football Federation, whose senior team Martino now manages and which will play Venezuela on Wednesday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Kickoff is 9 p.m. More than 40,000 tickets had been sold as of last week.
Instead of being interviewed for 10-15 minutes in a room a few feet from his office outside of Atlanta United’s locker room, Martino was peppered with questions for more than 20 minutes in the much larger interview room used by the Falcons that is across the stadium.
Instead of the dozen or so reporters who consistently cover Atlanta United’s home games, there were at least 50 journalists who showed very little interest in his time as Atlanta United’s manager and, rightfully, a lot of interest in Wednesday’s game and in his roster for the coming Gold Cup.
Martino wasn’t even wearing his championship ring for leading Atlanta United to the MLS Cup, a victory that happened in this same building a few days short of six months ago. He said he will receive the ring Thursday.
Though everything was slightly different, one thing hasn’t changed: Martino’s love of Atlanta.
“It’s hard to detach myself from the club and the people of Atlanta after two beautiful years,” he said.
This was at least his second time in Atlanta since flying home to Rosario, Argentina, from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport on Dec. 17.
His first time back took place in late April, when he came to Atlanta to promote Wednesday’s game. He had lunch with Atlanta United President Darren Eales. Several players also met with him for coffee and conversation.
Martino didn’t say who the players were, but presumably one of them was Josef Martinez, who may play for Venezuela on Wednesday.
“I just love him,” Martino said of Martinez, who scored 34 goals last season to earn league MVP honors. “I hope that he doesn’t keep scoring tomorrow and extend his goal-scoring streak.”
The love is mutual.
In a rarity, Martinez agreed to interviews twice last week after Atlanta United games. Scoring four goals in two games, both wins, can make one more agreeable.
As he typically is when interviewed, Martinez was funny, thoughtful and honest, particularly about Martino, describing him as being like a father.
“(Tata) gave a lot to me, to the team, and to the city,” Martinez said. “I think he gave all the players confidence, and he made us all believe in ourselves, and he gave a lot to us, so we tried to give a lot back to him. I think that is why we won a championship, so I think it will be a nice game that he is coming back to Atlanta. We have to enjoy it because this is his home. It has always been his home, and he deserves it.”
Martinez said he hopes that Atlanta United’s supporters will come and honor Martino, whose last appearance with the team came during the victory parade on a cold, rainy Dec. 10.
“I think he gave this city a lot,” Martinez said. “I don’t think he had the best goodbye, even though he won a championship. But, as a person, he deserves more, and we have to enjoy that game.”
El Tri is back
Wednesday’s game against Venezuela will mark the seventh time Mexico has played in Atlanta. The previous six games were at the Georgia Dome:
- It defeated Venezuela 4-0 with more than 51,000 tickets sold or distributed in 2009;
• It defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina 2-0 with more than 50,000 tickets sold or distributed in 2011;
• It defeated Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 with more than 54,000 tickets sold or distributed in the 2013 Gold Cup;
• It tied Nigeria 0-0 with an Atlanta record of 68,212 tickets sold or distributed in 2014;
• Mexico broke that record in 2015 with 70,511 tickets sold or distributed for a 2-1 win over Panama in the semifinals of the Gold Cup.
• It defeated Paraguay 2-0 in an exhibition with more than 63,049 in 2016.