Bayern's Gomez yet to regain form
Mario Gomez was tipped as the next German superstar while at Stuttgart
Gomez started for Germany in Euro 2008 but missed two easy chances
Gomez's loss of confidence has affected his form for club and country
One sole error of judgment, a little slip or loss of concentration, and your entire career can go do down the drain. That's the frightening reality of life as a professional goalkeeper. The idea that an outfield player could be similarly affected by a single mishap seems absurd. But perhaps that's exactly what happened to Mario Gomez.
In the summer of 2008, the then-23-year-old forward from Stuttgart was widely hailed as Germany's next up-and-coming superstar. He had scored 28 goals in all competitions for the Swabians and established himself as the top striker in Jogi Löw's national team. Tall, muscular, technically gifted and good-looking, he seemed to have everything. Barcelona and Real Madrid made tentative offers. It was, everybody agreed, only a question of time before he'd take world football by storm.
Gomez, the son of a Spanish immigrant and German mother, didn't have to wait long for his chance to make an impact on the big stage. Less than five minutes into Germany's Euro 2008 championship opener against Poland in Klagenfurt, Austria, Miroslav Klose and Gomez were bearing down on the opposition goal. They were clean through and about 10 yards out. Klose, the most unselfish of forwards, decided to pass to his teammate but he overhit the ball ever so slightly. Gomez hurled himself to the ground and stretched out a leg in a desperate attempt to connect. But he couldn't. The ball trickled past Artur Boruc's goal.
Germany ended up winning the game 2-0, so Gomez's miss hardly mattered. However, the attacker looked unsettled in the subsequent defeat to Croatia. In the must-win third group game against Austria, Gomez was again terribly unlucky: He somehow managed to scoop a ball over the crossbar from 2 yards out. Germany eventually progressed thanks to Michael Ballack's free kick. Gomez, however, was cast aside. Löw changed his system to a 4-2-3-1 with one striker (Klose) and never looked back.
"You play your first game at a tournament for Germany. After four minutes, a golden opportunity comes along and you miss it," Gomez said at the time. "After the game, I asked myself again and again: Why did this ball have to run that little bit too far? I'm sure the whole Euros would have turned out very differently for me, if that ball had gone in."
In a way, "Super Mario," as nicknamed by the German newspaper Bild, still hasn't fully recovered from that setback. The national team has stuck to the one-striker model and coped perfectly well without him. Gomez started only three competitive games since the Euros: twice against Azerbaijan, once versus Finland. At the World Cup in South Africa, he was restricted to four unconvincing cameos. Germany was leading England 4-1 and coasting into the quarterfinals by the time Gomez came on, yet the forward still looked shockingly low on confidence and ill at ease on the pitch.
At the club level, his fortunes have also taken a turn for the worse. In his final season with Stuttgart, in 2008-09, Gomez scored 24 goals. Bayern, however, seemed to have bought the national-team version of the player for a club-record $48 million last year. Gomez scored three goals in the first five games and managed nine more strikes in total before the season was over, but as third-choice attacker behind Ivica Olic and Klose, he spent most of his time on the sideline. In Munich, critics were wondering whether he was actually cut out for Louis van Gaal's smooth passing game.
"He seems to have lost the mobility from his Stuttgart days," honorary Bayern president Franz Beckenbauer said.
Much worse was said in the stands of the Allianz Arena.
"It's difficult when you come in for only a few minutes and get only one chance or so to shine," Gomez explained. "You're lacking the kind of confidence that can only come from playing a lot."
In the preseason, Van Gaal would have loved nothing more than to trade him for Wolfsburg striker Edin Dzeko, but neither the Bayern board nor Gomez was quite ready to call it a day.
"I've spent years training and struggling to play for a European top team like Bayern, I won't run away after a year," Gomez told the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. "I don't give up on the Bayern dream just yet."
It might not be his decision to make, however. Gomez, who came close to leaving Bayern for one-year loan to Liverpool in August, hasn't started a single game for the Bundesliga champions this season. Even a switch to a 4-4-1-1 system in the wake of injuries to wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery doesn't seem to have improved his chances all that much. Against FC Basel in midweek, Gomez was at least brought on after the break to play his first full half. His last goal for Bayern dates back almost eight months.
He can find some solace in the fact that all Bayern strikers have looked out of sorts thus far. Neither Klose nor Olic has managed to score in the league, a stat that reflects a distinct lack of cutting edge in the final third.
"I thought I was the problem," Olic said on Friday, his tongue firmly in cheek. "But then I sat on the bench and we still didn't score."
Gomez can't see the funny side: "I'm a footballer because I enjoy it," he said, "but you only enjoy it when you're playing."
Bayern president Uli Hoeness advised the player "to fight like a devil" this season but it increasingly looks as if he's fighting a lost cause. Finding the net seems nigh impossible for a striker who's been unable to find himself since that fateful miss in Klagenfurt.
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