Hernán Dario Gómez
I was born for football. It is my life.
But in 1994, it led to one of the worst things that has happened in my life: the murder of Andres Escobar, a player who had become like family to me.
I had been assistant coach of Colombia at the World Cup in America. We were labelled as favourites to win that tournament, after a perfect qualifying campaign in which we hardly lost a game.
The down side of that is that we didn’t realise the mistakes we were making.
Pelé and other important people committed us to winning it – but it was a lie, because we didn’t have any World Cup history.
It put a lot of pressure on us and I think it complicated us, mentally. We didn’t have the serenity and calm to play. And so we made mistakes.
When we were knocked out in the first round, the press were angry. Everyone was angry. The atmosphere at home was very tough, very complicated. You couldn’t go out in the street. There were insults, abuse, lack of respect.
It was three in the morning when I got the phone call from Andres’ girlfriend Pamela to tell me he had been killed. My wife took the phone from me – I was speechless.
It still hurts my soul.
At the time, I think everyone involved in Colombian football felt the same way. We wanted to leave everything. Even the country.
But I had already been appointed as the next manager, to carry on to the next World Cup in France. We had to restart with a lot of pain. But also with that love of football, because it’s in your blood.
You love your country. And I loved the players of that era a lot. We were family.
I think one of the most important things I have ever done is to have lifted that team. To have got to the 1998 World Cup after that… well, it showed a lot of fighting spirit, self-esteem and pride.
"I took a roll of toilet paper and said only one thing to them: “Here it is. Wipe your arses because you are crapping yourselves""
Since those days, I have taken two teams – Ecuador and Panama – to the World Cup for the first time in their history. Both times, I got a call directly from the president of the federation, without involvement from businessmen or anybody else.
When the president calls you himself and says “I want you”, that’s important.
When I first arrived in Ecuador, we faced some difficulties in getting the country to love the national team. At the first few matches, insults were flying.
We also had to unite the group – both with each other and with the management – so that we could start to form a family.
I started to give the team the style we had in Colombia, formed a very similar group, and it worked well. We had a wonderful qualifying campaign for the 2002 World Cup.
A key moment of that campaign came during half-time of our match against Brazil at our home stadium in Quito.
I am a manager who does not talk a lot on match day. If you work hard during the week, you have a message, and the players know it already. Through repetition, they go out and do it.
But, that day, I could see they were not doing what they had done in earlier matches. Because, of course, it was Brazil, with all their star players who had been world champions.
When we went into the dressing room at half-time, I saw a sluggish team. It was something I hadn’t experienced before with Ecuador.
I took a roll of toilet paper and said only one thing to them:
“Here it is. Wipe your arses because you are crapping yourselves. Now go back out on to the pitch.”
"The team wasn’t the same. They weren’t playing how they needed to play to get to a World Cup"
They went out angry. Angry with me, probably. But they started to be the team we normally were in Quito. They were amazing, and we won 1-0.
When I arrived in Panama, I found a team that needed lifting in the same way Ecuador had 13 years earlier.
They were suffering. Disillusioned after missing out on reaching the playoffs for the 2014 World Cup in the last few minutes of their final game.
The people were pessimistic, too. So, again, it was time to rebuild. Pick up the group and put them back together again.
We grew and grew. In every tournament, we played well and finished well-placed. And, from the start of the World Cup qualifiers, we were always on track to make it to Russia.
Well, almost. There was one match where we made a lot of mistakes, both players and management – against the United States.
Our planning was bad. We had a starting line-up we shouldn’t have had. And we changed the style we always had for away games because according to everyone, we would qualify against the US in Orlando. Instead, we lost 4-0.
When we got to our next game – the final qualification game – against Costa Rica, I buoyed the team up. I felt we would beat them, but in the first half the team wasn’t the same. They weren’t playing how they needed to play to get to a World Cup. They weren’t dynamic.
At half-time, I let them know that.
“I’ve got nothing to say except this: all you need is to have balls. Now, get out there.”
In the final 45 minutes, they did that. They showed more balls because they pushed Costa Rica right back. They started to play well, and with an 88th-minute goal they got their ticket to the World Cup.
"Being a national team manager is like taking a test after just three or four training sessions"
It isn’t unusual for Román Torres (above) to get a late goal like that.
He often shows up unexpectedly because he feels like it’s right, and I have never forbidden him from doing so. He is a winner. To all of us, it seemed normal that he ran up the pitch. When we saw him do that, we knew he would score.
As a manager you tell people what to do – you have an organisation – but football players have their own flashes of inspiration.
The only way I can explain the qualification of Panama is to say, it’s like a Tango called El Sueño del Pibe (The Child’s Dream). It was the greatest feeling.
By the time this tournament is over, I will have been to five World Cups with three different countries.
Being a national team manager is very difficult, because a lot of the time it’s like you are taking a test after just three or four training sessions.
But it is also wonderful. In Colombia, people hug me when I go out and thank me for representing the country well. When I meet people from Ecuador I get love, too. And that is what I want from Panamanians in the future: that when they see me, they love and hug me. That is the greatest reward.
Football has given me the hardest time in my life, but it has also given me so much pleasure. Many great moments.
I carry it in my blood.
Author: Tony Hodson