By Carlo Campo
For a footballing career that fits the script of a late-night cable TV telenovela, look no further than Hernan Dario Gomez.
At 56 years of age, the Colombian ex-player and current coach of Colombian club Independiente Medellin has enjoyed a career that far surpasses convention and borders on lunacy.
Known as El Bolillo, he was a prominent figure in Colombian football during the early 1990s, a time when the sport was being fueled by drug money in the country. He was part of the coaching set-up for Colombia’s infamous 1994 World Cup side, a tournament that ended in tragedy after defender Andres Escobar was shot soon after returning home from the United States. While guiding Ecuador to qualifying for their first-ever World Cup in 2001, he was shot in the leg for excluding the son of an ex-president from the country’s U-20 squad. And just last year, after taking on a second stint as Colombia’s national team coach, he resigned following an incident at a bar where he admitted to physically assaulting a woman patron.
However, throughout the drama, one thing has remained clear: Gomez is a capable coach whose involvement in the beautiful game has done wonders for a multitude of teams.
On Sunday, he had the chance to accomplish something that most coaches don’t ever get to experience. In front of Gomez was the opportunity to win Colombia’s domestic league with the club where he started his professional career as a player over 35 years ago. Comparisons can be drawn to Pep Guardiola, who won La Liga both as a player and a coach with Barcelona.
El Bolillo took over at Medellin in February after a poor start to the Apertura led to Guillermo Berrio losing his job. It had only been six months since he had resigned as head coach of Colombia’s national team for his bar assault. And although his hiring was met with criticism from those who had still not forgiven him (especially women’s rights groups), Gomez was generally well-received at the club due to the immediate regret he had expressed following the incident, in addition to goodwill from playing days at Medellin. He also claimed that taking over the reins at the club was the happiest moment of his life.
The Apertura, known as the first of two separate seasons that take place in Colombia during the calendar year, proved to be disastrous for Gomez as Medellin finished 16th of 18 sides with a record of 4-5-9.
But things went far better for the club in the Finalizacion, the second of the two annual league seasons where El Poderoso de la montaña finished seventh in the table, qualified for the semi-final stage, and booked a spot in the final with the chance to claim its fifth domestic league title.
On Sunday, Medellin travelled to the nation’s capital, Bogota, to take on Millonarios in the second leg of the final after the first leg at the Estadio Atanasio Girardot produced a dull scoreless draw. But in a manner more synonymous with Gomez’s dramatic career, the second leg proved to be one of the most exciting matches a Colombian final has produced in recent years.
With a minute left in the first half, Millonarios opened the scoring when the club’s top scorer Wilberto Cosme volleyed home Harrison Otalvaro’s pinpoint cross. It was a perfect finish and turned the Estadio El Campin into a full-on mosh pit. It didn’t take long, however, for Medellin to find an equalizer in the second half. With Millonarios’ defence seemingly asleep, William Zapata pounced on a free kick into the box to level the score at 1-1.
That would would be the final goal of the game. If away goals accounted for anything, Medellin would have been declared champions and Gomez would have made history. Unfortunately, going against the grain of South American football, away goals were meaningless and with the final tied 1-1 on aggregate, a penalty shootout was needed to decide the winner of this year’s Finalizacion.
After five shooters, both Medellin and Millonarios had converted four of their five shots and just when it seemed the final couldn’t reach a higher level of intensity, extra penalties were now required to settle the championship. That’s when keeper Millonarios Luis Enrique Delgado experienced what will likely be the greatest moment in his career. After taking a penalty himself to give Millonarios the lead in the shootout, he followed it up with a diving save against Andres Correra to give his club its record 14th domestic league title.
It was a heartbreaking moment for Medellin and a painful finale for Gomez who had taken his side so far throughout 2012.
Just like most South American leagues, inconsistency is a running theme in Colombian football, as the teams who dominate the league tend to shift from year to year. The last seven seasons have seen six different champions in Colombia and one has to wonder whether Medellin will be able to replicate their form from the Finalizacion in next year’s Apertura.
It seems likely that Gomez will stay on as the club’s head coach in 2013. Whatever happens, Sunday night’s final in Bogota would make for an excellent chapter in El Bolillo‘s telenovela.