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.
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