As Germany went wild and celebrated winning the World Cup in Brazil two years ago, one prominent supporter of the national team experienced a wider, darker ray of emotions in their moment of triumph.
“When you see the team play so successfully, when you’re aware of the fantastic atmosphere, you feel the pain, too,” Mario Gomez admitted about watching the tournament on television. He then added: “But many games have been thrilling, and I was happy for the boys. It wasn’t too hard [for me] during the tournament because I’d had time to digest not being part of the team.”
Nobody had missed the tall centre-forward in Brazil. He had been injured for most of the 2013-14 season and performed poorly for Fiorentina in Serie A. Joachim Löw’s Nationalmannschaft had moved on from playing with a recognised striker to a more fluid system with “false 9s” in the qualification campaign. Worse still, they had moved on from him, the truest No9 of his generation, after three tournaments of near misses, two of which were later blamed on Gomez not taking his chances in crucial games. “I was the scapegoat, I felt hard done by,” the 30-year-old told Tagesspiegel.
The former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, too, had singled out the attacker in the wake of the club’s traumatic defeat by Chelsea in the Champions League final at the Allianz Arena in 2012. “Mario Gomez is a good striker,” Hoeness said. “If he was a very good striker, we would have won the game.” His place up front was taken by Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic as Bayern powered to a treble in the 2012-13 season and the club unceremoniously offloaded him to Italy amid rumours of dressing-room tensions before the arrival of Pep Guardiola.
An urge to prove everyone wrong took the sensitive striker down a cul de sac of too much pressure, of trying too hard. His time as an elite striker seemed over altogether last summer, when he agreed, after much deliberation about the unstable political situation in Turkey, to move to Besiktas in the Turkish Super Lig, where plenty of former greats get paid huge salaries in exchange for toiling at the periphery of European football, off the radar. Last exit Istanbul: refuge of stars with broken dreams and derailed careers.
Gomez, however, made a promise to himself: it would be a new beginning, not the end. He was going to recalibrate, ignore the negativity, fall back in love with the game, score goals again, play for Germany again. “In July, I decided that my aim was to make it to the Euros and to win it with this team. Even if I only played three minutes or not at all.”
As early as September, he felt that the joy returned along with the fitness, and with it the born poacher’s sixth sense of where the ball was going to fall at his feet in the opposition box. Gomez netted 26 times to fire Besiktas to the championship and finish the campaign as Turkey’s leading goalscorer. After a 14-month absence, Löw recalled him for the ill-fated friendly against France in November, the night of the terror attacks in Paris.
Gomez did well in the 3-2 defeat by England in March but his chances to make the squad were then still rated low enough for Panini not to include him in their Euro 2016 sticker book. Even as the Bundestrainer confirmed his place in the squad in May, the expectation in Germany was that Gomez was only being taken to France as a two-legged emergency measure, to be called upon in the unlikely event that Germany fell behind and had to divert from Löw’s aesthetically pleasing short-pass game to a more agricultural approach with a big man up top.
To the surprise of everyone, however, Gomez’s new-found, zen-like demeanour and “Tibetan calmness” (Frankfurter Rundschau) off the pitch has translated into strong showings, two goals, and seen him emerge as the unlikeliest of key players for Germany at these Euros. He’s a player “resurrected,” wrote Stuttgarter Zeitung about the former local hero, born to a Swabian mother and a Spanish immigrant father from the Andalusian mining village of Albuñán.
Gomez no longer looks as if he’s a hindrance to Germany’s fluidity, he has in fact enabled it in France, with intelligent movement. “You can play football with him,” Lothar Matthäus said, while his physical presence has been such that plenty of German reporters have penned odes to his “well-toned model athlete upper body” (Süddeutsche Zeitung).
“I’m happy with my game like never before,” he told the media, in four different languages, in the Lille mixed zone after the 3-0 win over Slovakia with a huge smile on his face. “I don’t measure my performances in goals any more, it’s more important that my team-mates see how hard I work for them.”
A win against Italy – Germany’s bogey team and the side who beat Gomez and his men 2-1 in the Euro 2012 semi-final in Warsaw, his last competitive international before this summer’s comeback – would bring him closer to fulfilling his own promise, and open the door to the happiest return of all. It will be his 31st birthday on 10 July, the day of the final.
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