The Story of Papu Gomez, Part I: The Journey to Atalanta

Dressed in all white, perhaps to mirror the angels above, Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez  takes the moment in, anticipating every micro-movement before he plays the ball towards goal. A moment later he’s pumping his fist and gritting his teeth – his assist just defeated the reigning Champions League winners. He looks toward the ground, triumphant yet still visibly in shock after the passing of his hero – Diego Maradona – earlier in the morning.

 Perhaps at the death of football’s icon, ‘Papu’ assumed his own spot as one of Argentina’s great No. 10s – a passing of the guard; an action that defined a player at his zenith. Just as the former aspired from Villa Fiorito to playing his greatest days on the Italian peninsula, Gomez’s story was a symphony of acts that led him to becoming one of the finest playmakers in Serie A history. 

Eruption

Peer through the volcanic flow of Mount Etna and into Diego Simeone’s Catania of 2010/2011. In a side as fierce as its geological protector, Papu Gomez’s beginnings in Italy were quite the opposite of the free-flowing and creative football one would come to expect of him further down the line. In his young 20s and away from home for the first time, the winger’s side had just bleak hopes for Serie A survival.

He would meet his future manager-compatriot during their stints at San Lorenzo in Argentina, where Simeone modified his position to play on the outside rather than as a No.10: “He told me: “You are going to go to Europe and because of your physique they are not going to put you behind the centre-forward, but as a winger,” Gomez recalls. 

When the manager packed his bags for Italy, his ex-player was already there waiting. Simeone immediately enforced a style reminiscent of his time as a gritty midfielder. They were tough-nosed, compact, organized, and counter-attacking. Gomez played as a wing-forward, in a structured role that required him to collapse when out of possession, and hang off the shoulder of the last defender when attacking in bursts. The Elefanti would capture just one point in the first four matches, but found consistency – and ultimately salvation – gaining three wins on the trot, including a win in the Sicilian derby against Palermo. The punchy side finished the season with a string of victories as the attacker quickly took to his role. What Papu learned under Cholo would be fundemental throughout his career – he developed a resilient, disciplined edge, fighting out of the doldrums of Serie A. Diminutive, yet fierce. 

The following season, Gomez established himself as a young star with scintillating displays against the peninsula’s top teams. In fact, Catania won almost every single match when he found the back of the net – in Serie A, as well as in the Coppa Italia.

The season opener against Roma was the only caveat, but it demonstrated a courageous heart. Following a rather superb chip by Francesco Totti, Pablo ‘Dani’ Osvaldo scored a bicycle kick. Clawing back, the Elefanti counterattacked following an athletic run by Gomez to put Roma on the backfoot. A month later he combined well with Gonzalo Bergessio to beat Parma, and a few weeks after, he was the talisman in the Sicilians’ demolition of Lazio. 

An outrageous attempt from the edge of the area beat Federico Marchetti on his near post, and the rest of the match remained in Gomez’s crosshairs. His diving lunge made it three – bagging his brace – and the fourth was entirely down to his creative body feints, opening space for his cross to beat the defender and meet the foot of Pablo Barrientos.

It was a trifecta of Roman woes, capitulating the Giallorossi in the return leg. In his third attempt on goal, Gomez beautifully chipped the keeper to ignite the Stadio Angelo Massimino. A double then downed Udinese, and a diving shot capped off another win, defeating Pescara to confirm his breakout season. 

With nine goals and seven assists, Catania equaled their record-highest points total in the top flight, missing out on European competition by less than six points. Gomez was only behind  Bergessio in goals scored, but such early orchestrative skills showed surprising playmaking abilities. Radar blips were suddenly bleeping for some of the top European clubs. After breaking the club Serie A points record, they became regarded as Catania’s greatest team of all time. The cycle had ended, and Papu was destined to the top of European football. 

War

Heavily armed pro-Russian gunmen stormed the Crimean Parliament in February 2014. In the beginnings of the Ukrainian Revolution, the president fled, riot control resorted to live ammunition, and protesters to improvised explosives. Ukraine was on the brink of a civil war. Then, when things seemingly could not get worse, a Boeing 777 was shot out of the sky by a missile over Donetsk, killing all 298 onboard. 

Just a half year prior, Papu signed for Metalist Kharkiv in a big money move that promised Champions League football, with the glitz and glamour of playing for an Eastern European oil-backed club. It was becoming a popular trend among South Americans, becoming the seventh Argentinian for the club. The dominoes fell one by one: first the club was expelled from the Champions League for match fixing in 2008; then resentment grew due to poor league quality; and then cultural issues made him feel further away from home than ever.

He quickly found himself alone in a foreign country, with a language he did not understand. 

The sociopolitical movement jeopardized his young family’s livelihood. His wife-to-be, Linda Raff, had just given birth to their first son. She set into depression, and her hair started to fall out. They could not cook, bathe, or brush their teeth, as the water became contaminated. The possibility of moving north to Inter Milan, or rejoining Simeone at Atletico Madrid must have played over and over again in his head. Afterall, he had gone against the grain for the path of breakout stars, who typically moved on to play for Juventus, Napoli, and so on. What would be the cost to his career? It was a nightmare scenario for not only one of the world’s top talents, but Alejandro Gomez as a human being. 

While the media criticised such a move for choosing money over a top league, the truth was that Papu suffered from his own loyalties. Years later, he revealed what happened behind the scenes in Sicily, and how his professionalism had cost him more dear opportunities: 

“Now it is fashionable not to appear for the preseason, fight with the president or say something against the club so that they sell you to be able to leave. At Catania I consider myself very dear. I could never have done that… I did not have that brashness, nor ill will to say: “If you don’t sell me, I won’t train, or I’ll play injured until you sell me to Inter.”” 

Mature even in the early years of his career, Papu, out of respect, chose not to force his hand, but to do what was best for the club. Atletico’s bid – previous to their ascent in world football – came up short, choosing David Villa for two million euros less. Inter’s bid was short just as well.

After returning to Argentina during a break in play, Gomez refused to return to the warzone: 

“I cannot stay in Ukraine with the political situation as it is and people being killed in the street…It’s an anguished situation, very unstable, as we are all sad and living in a state of panic.

“After what happened with the Malaysian plane, I have no intention of coming back. The situation is too unstable and I will stay in Buenos Aires. Until there can be guarantees of safety, I cannot expose my family to these dangers.”

Those guarantees never came. Offering himself at a reduced salary, Gomez made a life choice that gave way to his ascension as one of Italian football’s greatest playmakers.



Words by: Wayne Girard. @wgirard10