Hernan Dario Gomez:’ You need the pressure, the fear, the players- the ball’ | Sid Lowe

The Panama coach Hernn Daro Gmezs passion for the ball has watched him through tragedy and terror and is now driving him on in his fifth World Cup with his third different nation

” And when we got home, they destroyed us .” Hernan Dario Gomez is talking about the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup when Colombia were knocked out by David Beckham’s free-kick in Lens. But it is not really about that; it is about everything: a recur theme in dialogue with the Panama manager covering a professional career that goes back 43 years, 37 as a coach. Pressure, demands, dread, agony.” It’s frightening ,” he says. And the 62 -year-old says that when he is not talking about the genuinely terrifying, genuinely tragic moments through which he has lived.

Gomez was Colombia’s deputy when Andres Escobar was shot dead after his own goal at the 1994 World Cup. During qualification for this tournament the Panama midfielder Amilcar Henriquez was gunned down outside his house. And when he was Ecuador coach, Gomez himself was shot after he did not name a politician’s son in the under -20 s. Smashed in the snout with the butt of a gun during an argument, he lay bleeding as three bullets were fired: the first went through his sleeve, the second ricocheted off the floor, the third reached his thigh. But that was that and this, for now, is just football. Merely it is never simply football.” Oh, it goes route beyond that ,” he says.

The question, then, is why? Why do it? Why are you still here? Why not walk away? When Escobar was killed, he says, he asked himself the same. But, he adds,” you think that a lot “. And that day in May 2001 when he was shot he intended to walk away. But, encouraged by his mother after leaving hospital, he did return. Six months later Ecuador qualified for their first World Cup, which is part of the answer.

” It’s a passion ,” he says.” I don’t know if you get used to it too: maybe you need the pressure, the fear, the pitching, the players- the ball .” He glances down. “My soulmate,” he says. Cradled under his arm is a ball. It is not a prop for the photo, more a consolation blanket. He operates his hands over it.” Balls are spectacular: the feel . I always have one with me: during team talks, strolling round the hotel, in the corridor at home. There’s footage where everyone’s celebrating qualification and, unconsciously, I’m there with the ball. I’ve got a room full. Every competition, I try to take a ball .”

The collection does not include the ball with which Panama began their historic qualification campaign- Gomez gave it to the Panamanian boxer Roberto” Stone Hand” Duran to look after for good luck and has not yet fulfilled his promise to collect it when they got there- but there are hundreds more. This summertime he will add a fifth World Cup ball. Assistant to Francisco ” Pancho ” Maturana in 1990 and 1994, Gomez was Colombia coach in 1998, Ecuador’s in 2002, Panama’s now. Three decades, three countries. Merely one other coach, Henri Michel, has taken three nations to the tournament.” But that’s not the record ,” Gomez says.” The record’s taking two who have never been .”

Do you feel special?

” No, I feel proud .”

Born in Medellin, Gomez is the son of a prestigious designer who was a severe disciplinarian whose penalties involved beatings with a belt. Nicknamed ” Bolillo”, after he once turned up at develop head shaved, leaving him looking like a billiard ball, Hernan was a small, underachieving defensive midfielder who later admitted drinking and sneaking women into the team hotel, before sustaining a knee trauma that objective his career. Once an ex-player- although he protests” ex-player doesn’t exist; you die as a footballer”- he managed Guatemala, Ecuador and Colombia twice. The second period, in 2011, he had to resign after making a woman outside a Bogota bar. “I’m ashamed,” he said.

Panama’s
Panama’s players in Saransk preparing to face England. Photograph: Jack Guez/ AFP/ Getty Images

He arrived in Panama in 2014 just after they had missed the World Cup because of a last-minute objective from the US. This time they qualified with a late aim which knocked the US out. Gomez calls 2014″ a tragedy” and says” the players had that ghost .” But, he adds:” It’s not football that does that to you, it’s you, your life. How well did you work? Behave? How loyal were you to the sport? How professional? You pay for bad behaviour; football builds you. And when you behave well, football pays you back. To be a footballer you have to be a professional .”

“‘ He’s a character ,” says one member of the backroom personnel, as Gomez talks to players in the team hotel.” What kind of coach am I? It’s also:’ What kind of person am I ?’ And what kind of people are they ?” Gomez says.” I’m not one for books or meetings. The main thing isn’t the pitch. In countries like Ecuador, Panama, it’s how you live, the personalities. There are tactical coaches, teachers, but a high percentage is leadership: charisma, hunch, group management. My attitude is: all on the bed or all on the floor, unity and equality. This is the self-esteem of a country. The’ silver’ comes from clubs, the glory comes from the national team.

” I have football in my blood, the football I played. But players have changed ,” Gomez adds.” Before they read Condorito[ a Chilean comic book] or Playboy; now they read judicial texts. They don’t’ receive’ datum so easily, so passively. You have to give them more. Before, it was’ you play as a No 10, you 7, you 6, you 8, you 5′”

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Now they play England.” I recollect England in 1966 with Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore. Gary Lineker in 1986. And Beckham in 1998 and that little striker- Owen! After 1994 the whole country[ Colombia] disliked us: everywhere we went they abused us. Pancho went to Atletico and I took a decline generation to France, lost to that Beckham free-kick and they destroyed us. You’ll see that again if Colombia don’t finish in the top five.

” England always arrived with great names. But this squad is even better, in my opinion. Obviously Kane stands out but I insure homogeneity, a perfect squad. Physically they’re perfect. People talk about’ modern football’ but’ modern football’ was played by Germany, by Holland in 1974. What’s changed? Look at England: a young, ordered team in the best physical condition . Slim ! And that’s the thing. Neymar’s an example: his physique, the agility. That’s modern football. Diet, conditioning. England look great: so, so slim, stripped down .”

Panama look different- and in the final week of dawn training sessions before heading to Russia, that was Gomez’s concern, together with emotional management. This is unlike anything his players have ever experienced and it has been a long journey.” They could write a book ,” he says.” When you get there you can grow, but you can shrink too. A World Cup is the greatest party. You consider the most beautiful woman and you can dance with her. Your legs tremble .”

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Gomez says there are four possible results for Panama: win, depict, lose, get hammered.” Belgium are here ,” he says, holding his hand up.” England here ,” he adds, hand the same height. He falls it a little.” And Tunisia here .” His hand drops further.” And this is us .”

” I’m the poor human but, if we’re going to play, let’s play. But let’s compete. Think of Colombia in 1994: everyone said we’d win the World Cup because we’d beaten Argentina 5-0 and what did we do? We pushed high, went to play, and ciao. It’s easy to think’ that’s it, we qualified, relax’ but I can’t settle for that. No , no , no. I want to depart with dignity. Without going through, we can still leave as wins. By playing well, doing good things, having an idea, indicating this squad has something.

” This has united the country a lot but you know how the world is: lose and this will turn to misery. They’re waiting for us. You suffer. I’m very scared that a team that’s brought a country together, the source of everybody’s happiness,’ the dream of a nation ‘…” Gomez says, adopting an affected cinematic voice for the final line.

….is some responsibility? “Yes,” he says. Do you suffer?” Yes. A lot. It’s scary. If we lose some will believe all that’s destroyed because we didn’t beat England or Belgium. They’re two candidates to win the World Cup !”

If you were going there with them, or with Brazil or Germany, you’d be going to win it?” For sure ,” Gomez says.” Look at the Germany coach or Brazil’s, or Mourinho or the managers you always hear about. See if they could come and qualify Panama. But now we have to go again. Others ran and never returned- El Salvador for example. We have to work, improve. If not, what’s the point? Go to the World Cup and then simply fold your arms ?”

And yet, even if they never go back, this is huge and it matters.” Ah no, of course: it’s historic ,” Gomez says.” No one can ever take that away .”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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