With Argentina’s World Cup qualifying campaign flagging, could Atalanta ace Papu Gomez be the right fit for the Albiceleste?
In a week where Argentina’s youth football has come under renewed scrutiny after a troubled qualification campaign to the 2018 World Cup, the mind skips back to 2007 when the likes of Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Ever Banega fired the under-20s to World Cup glory.
After more than ten years of domination at this level, 2007 was to be the peak before it all came crashing down and while several of that talented young group have been household names in Argentina and Europe for many a year, Alejandro Papu Gomez is only now making people sit up and take notice.
Papu might be about to turn 29 but the pint-sized forward has become the inspirational figurehead behind Atalanta’s remarkable rise up the Serie A table.
Nine goals and five assists this season not only ranks Atalanta’s captain as one of Serie A’s best performers but has La Dea sitting pretty in fifth.
Those impressive figures and his overall contribution to Gian Piero Gasperini’s system illustrate there is far more to the man than his creatively designed captain’s armbands, his photoshop battle with teammate Andrea Petagna or the viral video of his crunching two-footed tackle on his son at the beach.
This has all fueled the cult of Papu but shouldn’t diminish just how effective Gomez has been in Serie A this season and why Edgardo Bauza must be keeping tabs on the former youth international.
Gomez may now be on the radar of Argentina and the wider football community but hasn’t exactly emerged from nowhere and had it not been for an ill-advised move to Metalist Kharkiv in 2013, Papu could have been a more recognized star like a number of his under-20 graduates.
World Cup winner Jorge Burruchaga summoned a then 14-year-old Gomez to join preseason training with his Arsenal de Sarandi squad and over the coming years — the under-20 World Cup title with Argentina, the Copa Sudamericana with Arsenal, a move to one of the traditional big five clubs in San Lorenzo and an eventual transfer to Catania, Papu was following the trajectory of so many successful Argentine exports.
An immediate success in Italy, Gomez was part of a Catania side that went on to achieve a historic high in the Italian top flight but it was after three wonderful seasons that the turning point in Papu’s career arrived.
Diego Simeone, who had worked with Gomez while in charge of Catania, wanted to bring the forward to Atletico Madrid and after the Italian club rejected the offer, it was the lure of Ukrainian money that sealed Papu’s next move.
The Champions League football that had been promised was swiftly taken away after a UEFA ban for match-fixing and a failure to settle amid social unrest in Ukraine led Gomez to push for a transfer back away and at one point refuse to return to Kharkiv, stating, “It’s an anguished situation, very unstable. I have no intention of coming back; I will stay in Buenos Aires until there can guarantees of safety.”
With effectively a year wasted, Atalanta stole a march on several Serie A clubs to end Gomez’s Ukrainian nightmare and just how much of a bargain is the €5 million spent looking now?
Gasperini’s young side have rightly taken many plaudits but the fulcrum to their attack is Gomez and his freedom to roam in behind striker Andrea Petagna and drift out to the left has made him unplayable at times.
Having started out as a wide player thanks to his low-centre of gravity and wonderful dribbling, Papu still finds joy down the flanks but to devastating effect now cuts inside onto his right foot to orchestrate things for Atalanta.
Italy had hoped that they could be the beneficiaries of Argentina’s oversight but despite recently receiving dual citizenship, FIFA rules prevent Gomez from representing the Azzurri given that he didn’t have his Italian passport when he played for the Argentina under-20s.
Papu hasn’t given up on that dream after appearing to accept that La Albiceleste will not come calling but perhaps Italy’s misfortune provides Edgardo Bauza with an opportunity to reconsider.