Forgotten Idols: Nuno Gomes

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Although Portugal won their Euro 2016 quarter-final against Poland, via a penalty shootout, it’s no exaggeration to say that they have yet to set the tournament alight. After failing to win any of their group matches, they scraped into the knockout phase. They pulled off a surprise extra-time win against predicted dark horses Croatia, and even Cristiano Ronaldo has mostly failed to shine so far. What is noticeable about the way they set out their team is the lack of a recognised centre forward. Given the talent at their disposal, somebody like Nuno Gomes in his prime would be a valuable asset right now.

Early Beginnings

Born on 5th July 1976, Gomes joined the academy of his hometown club Amarante FC, a small town in the Porto district.  He was soon spotted by the scouts of Boavista and at the age of 14 he joined their youth setup. In the 1994 – 95 season, he made his first team debut at the age of 18 and went on to make 17 appearances, mainly from the bench, scoring twice.

His favoured position was that of a striker, although he was equally adept at playing in the hole behind the front man. The 1995 – 96 season saw him feature more prominently, scoring eight goals in thirty appearances. This type of form saw him earn his first cap for Portugal, a substitute appearance in a friendly against France. Gomes was tipped to make the squad for Euro 96, but overlooked in favour of more experienced strikers.

Rising Talent

A fourth place finish had seen Boavista secure UEFA Cup football for the 1996 – 97 season. It was clear that Gomes was to be the man leading the attack and he didn’t let the fans down. He scored 21 goals in all competitions, working directly in tandem with Bolivian midfielder Erwin Sanchez. Explosive pace was one of his biggest assets, and was supplemented with great aerial ability. Never afraid to take players on, he also displayed a great range of finishing both inside and outside the box.

It would be Gomes’ final season playing for Os Axadrezados, as his form had alerted several European clubs. His future was sealed in the 1997 Taça de Portugal Final against the club who would become his new employers, Benfica. Tipped as underdogs against the Eagles of Lisbon, Boavista upset the apple cart completely, winning 3 – 2. Gomes scored the second goal and his persistence won his side a penalty, which ended up deciding the game. The fact that he missed a sitter towards the end of that game did not cool their interest at all.

The transfer of Nuno Gomes to Benfica in the summer of 1997 made sense, given his age. Playing for arguably Portugal’s biggest club would surely enhance his chances of becoming a regular for his country. Unfortunately for the striker, this did not prove to be the case at first. Despite scoring 56 goals in his first two seasons at Estádio da Luz, he was only given brief international appearances. This may have been one of the reasons why Portugal failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup.

In the 1999 – 2000 season, Nuno Gomes started to get the attention his  talent deserved. He scored another 20 goals for Benfica and made his first start for Portugal, in a 1 – 1 friendly draw against Belgium.

Superstar Status

Gomes had been used very sparingly during the qualifying campaign for Euro 2000. In their first group game of the tournament, he started against England in the centre of a three-pronged attack also consisting of João Pinto and Luís Figo. An amazing performance saw the Portuguese battle back from two goals down to win 3 – 2, with Gomes scoring the winner. Latching onto Rui Costa’s diagonal through ball, he outpaced Tony Adams to smash a wonderful shot past Seaman with the outside of his foot.

Portugal surprised everyone by winning their group, which also included Germany. Gomes came to life once again in the quarter-finals against Turkey, scoring both goals in a 2 – 0 win. The first saw him glance a header past Rüştü Reçber and the second was a real poachers effort, a tap in from a yard out, both assisted by outstanding work from Figo.

The semi-final saw Portugal faced World Cup holders France, and thanks to a brilliant goal by Gomes take a shock lead. A midfield battle between Sérgio Conceição and Didier Dechamps saw the ball drop to the Benfica striker just outside the box.  With the ball on the bounce and his back to goal, he hit a superb strike on the turn.  Fabien Barthez was rooted to the spot as the ball flashed past him into the net.

France equalised to send the game to extra time, but their winning goal caused major controversy. When Abel Xavier was correctly adjudged to have handballed, Zinedine Zidane converted the penalty. Under the Golden Goal rule, this meant that France were through to the Final. The Portuguese players were incensed and Gomes pushed Austrian referee Günter Benkö. He was one of three player charged with violent conduct, Xavier and Paulo Bento being the others. All three were handed lengthy bans by UEFA, although this merely applied to European and International matches.

Serie A

Nuno Gomes had finished as the tournament’s second highest goalscorer and, unsurprisingly, several European clubs were interested. It was Fiorentina who won the race for his signature in a £12.75 million transfer. The club had plenty of money to spend following the transfer of Gabriel Batistuta to Roma. With a strike force of Gomes, Enrico Chiesa and Predrag Mijatović, much was expected. What transpired was the beginning of a period most of their fans would rather forget.

Fiorentina were expected to challenge for the Serie A title, but ended the season in a disappointing 9th place. They also suffered a shock exit in the first round of the UEFA Cup, to Tirol Innsbruck of Austria. Manager Fatih Terim announced his intention to quit at the end of his first season, and their league form plummeted after this.

They did win the Coppa Italia, however, and it was Gomes who struck what proved the winning goal over two legs. A 1 – 0 victory away to Parma had given Fiorentina an advantage going into the second leg, but Savo Milošević struck early to level the tie. Gomes put his side back in front after finding himself through on goal, and powering a shot past Gianluigi Buffon. It proved enough to win the cup for the Florence side. His first season in Italy had seen him score thirteen goals in all competitions.

His second season was less successful, as his form dipped and his club collapsed. Despite the sale of Rui Costa and Francesco Toldo, the clubs financial meltdown meant that none of the proceeds were invested in the squad. Injuries to key players, two managerial changes and lack of strength in depth meant that Fiorentina won just five league games. They were relegated after finishing in 17th position.

Because Fiorentina were unable to prove that they could fund themselves, they were placed into administration. With debts of around £30 million, they were refused a place in Serie B and the club effectively folded. Over the summer of 2002, they would reform as Associazione Calcio Fiorentina e Florentia Viola. They were admitted into the fourth tier of Italian football, Serie C2. The fact that the club now ceased to exist meant that all of their players were granted free transfers.

Gomes went to the 2002 World Cup in South Korea, but played a total of 25 minutes across two substitute appearances. Despite scoring seven goals from six appearances in qualifying, his poor club form meant that Pauleta started ahead of him. Portugal did not make it out of the group stage.

Return to Lisbon

Hailed as a returning hero by the Benfica faithful, Nuno Gomes was happy to rejoin the club, but expressed sadness at Fiorentina’s predicament. His second spell at the club saw him do something he hadn’t done in his previous stint – win trophies. It’s fair to say, however, that he returned to Lisbon a less prolific striker than he had been previously.

In his first two seasons back in Lisbon, his side were competing against José Mourinho’s Porto. They cleaned up both domestically and in Europe, while Benfica had to be content with second place finishes. They did win the 2004 Taça de Portugal, beating Porto in the Final.

While Gomes was not scoring at the same rate he had previously, he was once again part of Portugal’s plans. Although mainly used as a substitute, he scored the winning goal against Spain to ensure qualification from Group A. This was the only goal he scored, however, and he started on the bench for the Final defeat to Greece.

The 2004 – 05 season would see Benfica win the Primera Liga trophy for the first time in more than a decade. While Gomes was still the club’s first choice striker, winger Simão was now their undisputed star and top scorer.

Benfica failed to defend their title the following season, finishing third. Gomes scored 17 times, however, including both goals in a 2 – 0 away victory over hated rivals Porto. This was the best tally of his second stint at the club. This form still saw him selected for Portugal’s 2006 World Cup squad. Once again, he was used fleetingly, with his only goal a late consolation strike in the third place playoff against Germany. This would be the last time he was selected for an International tournament, and his final goal for his country.

Later Career

In his later years he was made club captain, but was by no mean an automatic starter. Forwards such as Óscar Cardozo, Fabrizio Miccoli and Javier Saviola provided the competition for places up front. He was still an important member of the squad, with his experience invaluable.

He was again selected for Portugal for Euro 2008, and started three of their four games. Once again, he netted against Germany but was unable to prevent his team’s exit at the quarter-final stage.

By the 2009 – 10 season, his appearances for the club were becoming less frequent. Saviola and Cardozo were the preferred pairing upfront as Benfica regained the league title. Gomes did play enough games to qualify for a medal but it was the shape of things to come. The following season would be his last at the club as he played nine games in total, scoring six times. He was released in the summer of 2011, following the expiration of his contract.

Now aged 35, Gomes signed for SC Braga as a free agent. Despite being mainly used as a backup, he helped the club finish third to qualify for the Champions League. He did collect a further two caps for Portugal, in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, but did not make the final squad.

He joined Blackburn Rovers, who had just been relegated from the Premier League, in the summer of 2012. Although he signed a two year contract, he was released after one season, and retired at the age of 37.

Final Thought

Given the way that Nuno Gomes played the game, he would have fitted quite well into the current Portugal team. His pace, combined with that of Ronaldo and Nani, would make theirs the fastest attack at the tournament. Given that they play without a recognised striker, he would also balance out the side.

Because his later career did not fulfil the promise shown at Euro 2000, it’s easy to disremember his heroics at that tournament. For this reason alone, he is a perfect example of a forgotten idol.

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